Monday, 20 November 2000

Edmund Crispin: Fen Country (1979)

Edition: Penguin, 1981
Review number: 688

The description of Fen Country on its cover as twenty six detective stories featuring Gervase Fen is a slight exaggeration; only around half the stories are actually mysteries solved by Crispin's famous detective. They are generally, though, of high quality, and several of them are quite funny.

Writing a mystery in short story format is a difficult art. At novel length, the classic murder myster writer has space to introduce six or seven potential suspects, all with backgrounds making them suspicious and giving them motives for killing the victim, as well as clues to mislead the reader. Many novels have denouements which are longer than any of the stories in this collection. To fit enough into a short story for it to have any chance to compete is very difficult, and efforts by even some of the best known mystery authors just show how hard it is (the short stories of Dorothy L. Sayers are a case in point). The achievements of Conan Doyle, who wrote so many classic short stories in the Sherlock Holmes canon, are shown in their correct perspective by this. And it is, thankfully, of the Sherlock Holmes stories that the reader of Fen Country is most consistently reminded.

Their structure is very similar, with the detective usually solving the crime by picking up some small detail - and here the puzzles are sufficiently difficult that I would defy the majority of readers to solve any of the mysteries even with this hint.

The most interesting story - not the best, because it is rather obvious - is We Know You're Busy Writing..., which is about the way that people assume that writing is not really work and how frustrating writers find this. The story is one of the amusing ones, and it is probably the most memorable.

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