I lean more towards hard-boiled crime than cozy mysteries, but occasionally, I need a change of pace. The Glimpses of the Moon by Edmund Crispin is a cozy mystery with all the hallmark features: an amateur sleuth, murder in a bucolic village setting, and most of the violence off the page. In common with many cozies, The Glimpses of the Moon is also quite funny, and it’s no easy feat to mesh humour with murder, but author Edmund Crispin (1921-1978), whose real name was Robert Bruce Montgomery, manages to blend the two elements very neatly in a novel that is full of memorable scenes and characters. While many of the characters are caricatures–the types we’d expect to find in a dull, sleepy British village, others give the novel a unique flavor.
In The Glimpses of the Moon, Crispin’s series sleuth, Oxford don, Gervase Fen, on a sabbatical, rents a country cottage in Aller hamlet with the idea that the peaceful country life will be conducive to his research into “the post-war British novel.” The novel opens with Gervase enjoying a pint at the pub with one of the locals, the Major, when they are interrupted by a journalist named Padmore who is sniffing around, asking questions about a murder that took place two months earlier. Padmore, a bit of a rum character who has little experience covering crime, has written an almost-finished book on the murder of a local man, the very unsavoury and much disliked Routh, generally agreed to be a “horrible man.” beheaded by eccentric “mad as a hatter” loner Hagberd. While no one regrets Routh’s passing, there seems only to be speculation that it took this long for someone to finally kill this obnoxious and cruel man. The solution to the crime is apparently sewn up, and the police are satisfied that they’ve caught the killer. Much to Padmore’s dismay however, he discovers from the semi-lucid Gobbo (the modern-day equivalent to the village idiot), that Hagberd couldn’t have possibly killed Routh as Hagberd was chatting with Gobbo at the time of the murder.
Since this startling revelation occurs in the presence of both the major and Gervase Fen, the men initially try to establish whether or not Gobbo–hardly the most reliable man in the village–is correct or not. But a few casual interviews only seem to cloud the matter, and then another headless corpse appears … horror of horrors… at the village fete!
The plot is loaded with colourful characters. Apart from Gobbo, there’s cleaner Mrs Bragg, “a big henna-ed woman who shrieked with happy laughter,” the very snobby Mrs Leeper-Foxe whose late husband left her a “fat income from factory farming,” an unworldly eccentric Rector who lives in a “huge, lowering mid-Victorian erection” called Y Wurry , and Ortrud, a sturdy, tireless German nymphomaniac who brings her lovers back as temporary lodgers to her husband’s pig farm. He, in the meantime, consoles himself with his pigs who appear to be named after heroines in Thomas Hardy novels.
An Amazonian woman almost as tall as her husband, she had great physical strength and an emphatic Junoesque figure. (“Those bosoms, don’t you know,” the Major had once pronounced, more in amazement than in admiration. “Prodigious things–dazzling-flesh-bulbs.”) Her inexpressive Nordic head combined dark eyebrows with cheese-coloured hair put together in a complicated bun at the back, like pallid worms transfixed in mid-orgy.
Until recently, Ortrud wasn’t the only man-eater in town. Local lass, Mavis Trent also had a reputation for taking lovers and dropping them, but she was found dead under somewhat strange circumstances. Is there a connection between the death of Mavis Trent and the murder of Routh? Here’s the Rector on the subject of Mavis–a woman he’s obviously thought about quite a bit:
“Mavis was a nympho, I suppose, but calling her that gives a wrong impression. She never seemed to flirt or ogle or any of that stuff. But then, she didn’t have to, or anyway, not obviously; she was just naturally cheerfully sexy, with a sort of built-in spontaneous come-hither which gave you the idea, very powerfully, that making love to her would be all fun and no complications. It was, too–or so I gather. Damn it, I was quite taken with the girl myself. Not that I’d have married her, of course (she didn’t seem interested in making a second marriage, come to that), and of course, me being a cleric and not approving of all this promiscuity anyway, there was no question of an affaire (besides you can’t stay properly fit if you keep fornicating all the time). Even so, I still got the impression that she wouldn’t have minded nabbing me, on a temporary basis,” said the Rector, with obvious gratification. “So you can see, she wasn’t what you’d call choosy.”
Edmund Crispin’s characters are a motley bunch who mingle due to proximity and yet while they all seem to inhabit their own little worlds, they collide on a number of issues: animal cruelty (which seems an appropriate issue since the story is set in the countryside) and sexuality. It’s as though unleashed in the countryside, people in and around the village of Burraford have resorted to their animalistic natures and all social rules are ignored–not by everyone, of course, but this ‘rule breaking’ seems to have led to murder and Gervase becomes embroiled in the hunt for the killer while trying to write his book and care for all the animals that reside at the cottage he rents. One of the complaints I read about Crispin’s work is that some readers found his allusions a bit tedious. In The Glimpses of the Moon, Gervase Fen is constantly rattling off names of authors (muttering to himself), but I enjoyed these intrusions. On a note of caution, however, foreign readers may find the small patches of dialect impenetrable.