Murder in the cathedral

When some months ago I read Barbara Pym’s Some Tame Gazelle for this series on clergy in fiction, I thought I had perhaps found the novel with the largest number of clerical characters (four in all.) I had not reckoned, however, with Holy Disorders, a detective novel by Edmund Crispin. It was first published in 1946 by Gollancz, and subsequently in an inexpensive Penguin Classic Crime edition in 1958. Featuring Crispin’s sleuth Gervase Fen, it is an entertaining tale of murder and black magic set around the south-west cathedral city of Tolnbridge. An attempt has been made on the life of the cathedral organist, and suspicion falls on the several clergy of the cathedral.

Cathedral at night (Salisbury).
Image: Lee Hughes (Flickr), CC BY-NC-ND-2.0

There are five clerical characters, all of them lightly drawn but with some deftness. Both bishop and dean are absent, for reasons we never know, and the cathedral is overseen by the precentor, Dr Butler. The precentor has the frame of a giant, and ‘the coldest eyes … ever seen in a human being.’ High-handed with clergy, organists and his family, Butler cuts a remote and unpopular figure. Canons Spitshuker and Garbin, one a Tractarian, the other a Low Churchman, busy themselves in furious and inconclusive disputes about doctrine: ‘unlike parallel lines, it was inconceivable that their views should ever meet, even at infinity.’ The two are also divided by class and wealth: Spitshuker, rotund and complacent, descends from a family long connected with the church; Garbin, a scholarship boy from a poor family, has a more personal, more earnest view of his vocation. A scholar, of the Albigensian heresy, Garbin suspected the precentor of plagiarising his work; an offence over which he almost resigned his canonry. The chancellor, Sir John Dallow, is the expert in the long and dark history of witchcraft in Tolnbridge: it is easy to become an expert when one has almost nothing to do and considerable wealth to support one in doing it. Finally, there is the young July Savernake, vicar of a nearby parish, who spends half the year living beyond his means as the curé bon viveur, and the other as the poor parson. He also has designs on the hand of Frances, the precentor’s daughter.

Crispin’s world owes a good deal to Trollope, and may well have been inspired by another murder in the cathedral, that written for Canterbury by T.S.Eliot a decade earlier. The cathedral provides a convenient setting for a complex plot: a group of people with relationships and rivalries of long standing, which live in close proximity in a small town, around a building with many doors, dim lighting and many secrets. But it is purely incidental that these characters are clergy. The plot never engages their conduct as religious professionals; there are no points of decision that are dramatic by reason of the faith of the person who must decide. At heart, Holy Disorders is a morally conventional tale in which a murderer is brought to book. Crispin has no design on the reader’s conscience; no desire to dramatise the place of the national church at the end of a world war. His purpose is simply to entertain, in which purpose he succeeds.

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