My Favourite Moments In Novels No.4
Robert Bruce Montgomery, born 1921, was the organist and choirmaster of St John’s College, Oxford. This spirited, funny man turned to composing movie music and wrote six scores for the ‘Carry On’ films. He also wrote the Gervase Fen books, eleven joyous volumes, all but one of which were produced between 1945 and 1951.
The first set the tone for what was to follow. Fen is Professor of English Language and Literature, and assumes that the reader can keep up with him as he spouts literary allusions while cracking crimes. The books are fast and fun, their hero charming, frivolous, brilliant and badly behaved. When he’s investigating, Fen tends to dive into pubs, play word games or start singing badly, anything rather than stick to the job at hand.
Sometimes, more daringly, he breaks the fourth wall and makes jokes about his publisher, or even his writer.
In the first Fen story I read, the lanky don hijacks a philosophy lecture by noisily cracking walnuts and then loudly telling his own tale, which is far more interesting. In ‘The Moving Toyshop’ Fen gets conked on the head and tied up in a cupboard. While he’s stuck in there he imagines titles for Crispin’s novel based on this adventure:
”Fen steps in’, said Fen. ‘The Return of Fen. A Don Dares Death (A Gervase Fen Story). Murder Stalks The University. Blood On The Mortarboard. Fen Strikes Back.’
Then, to pass the time, he lists unreadable books, including ‘Tristram Shandy’ and ‘The Golden Bowl’. The reading is such a joy that you don’t care so much about the crime, but the solutions are outrageously ingenious and highly implausible.