Edmund Crispin was the pseudonym of Robert Bruce Montgomery (usually credited as Bruce Montgomery) (2 October 1921 – 15 September 1978), an English crime writer and composer, known for his Gervase Fen novels and for his musical scores for the early films in the Carry On series.
Montgomery was born in Chesham Bois, Buckinghamshire. He was educated at Merchant Taylors' School and graduated from St John's College, Oxford, in 1943, with a BA in modern languages, having for two years been its organ scholar and choirmaster. While there he became friendly with Philip Larkin and Kingsley Amis. From 1943 to 1945 he taught at Shrewsbury School and began writing the first of his detective novels. Montgomery encouraged Larkin's writing ambitions, and according to Andrew Motion "by combining a devoted commitment to writing with a huge appetite for drinking and fooling around, he gave Larkin a model of the ways in which art could avoid pretension".
He first became established under his own name as a composer of vocal and choral music, including An Oxford Requiem (1951), but later turned to film work, writing the scores for many British comedies of the 1950s. For the Carry On series he composed six scores, (Sergeant, Nurse, Teacher, Constable, Regardless and Cruising), including the original Carry On theme subsequently adapted for later films by Eric Rogers. He also composed the scores to four films in the Doctor film series (House, Sea, Large and Love). Montgomery wrote both the screenplay and score of Raising the Wind (1961), and his other film scores included The Kidnappers (1953), Raising a Riot (1955), Eyewitness (1956), The Truth About Women (1957), The Surgeon's Knife (1957), Please Turn Over (1959), Too Young to Love (1959), Watch Your Stern (1960), No Kidding (1960), Twice Round the Daffodils (1962) and The Brides of Fu Manchu (1966).
Montgomery wrote detective novels and two collections of short stories under the pseudonym Edmund Crispin (taken from a character in Michael Innes's Hamlet, Revenge!). Nine volumes appeared between 1944 and 1953, starting with The Case of The Gilded Fly. The stories feature Oxford don Gervase Fen, who is a Professor of English at the university and a fellow of St Christopher's College, a fictional institution that Crispin locates next to St John's College. Fen is an eccentric, sometimes absent-minded, character reportedly based on his tutor, the Oxford professor W. G. Moore (1905-1978). The whodunit novels have complex plots and fantastic, somewhat unbelievable solutions, including examples of the locked room mystery. They are written in a humorous, literary and sometimes farcical style. They are also among the few mystery novels to break the fourth wall occasionally and speak directly to the audience. Perhaps the best example is from The Moving Toyshop, during a chase sequence – "Let's go left", Cadogan suggested. "After all, Gollancz is publishing this book."
All of the novels contain frequent references to English literature, poetry, and (in particular) music. Frequent Hearses and Swan Song have a specifically musical backdrop. Swan Song (1947) explores the world of opera during rehearsals for a production of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, while Frequent Hearses is set in a film studio, and includes among the characters Napier, a composer of film music. By 1950, when Frequent Hearses was published, Montgomery was already busy elsewhere, also establishing himself as a composer of film music.
Crispin is considered by many to be one of the last great exponents of the classic crime mystery.
Bruce Montgomery composed the scores for nearly forty films, including documentaries and thrillers. The Carry-On Suite, arranged by David Whittle from the scores of Carry On Sergeant (1958), Carry On Nurse (1959) and Carry on Teacher (1959), provides a representative example, dominated by the main theme, a comedy March.
Although his film work got his music out to a huge audience, the numerous comedy scores in particular stand in stark contrast to Bruce Montgomery’s concert works and church music with which he started out. These began to appear in the mid-1940s, at the same time his detective novels were appearing under the name Edmund Crispin. An early example is the Overture to a Fairy Tale of 1946, first performed in February 1948 by the Torquay Municipal Orchestra. (Montgomery was living at Brixham at the time).
But church music predominates, the culmination being the Oxford Requiem, commissioned by the Oxford Bach Choir and first performed at the Sheldonian Theatre on 23 May 1951 (The Sheldonian was also the scene of a crime in his novel The Moving Toyshop). He may have been motivated to compose the piece following the death of his close friend and teacher, the organist and composer Godfrey Sampson (1902-1949) – thought also to have been the inspiration behind the character Geoffrey Vintner, the organist and friend of Gervase Fen in Holy Disorders. An Oxford Requiem “is Montgomery’s most considerable achievement to date,” wrote The Times reviewer, “and confirms the suspicion that he is a real composer with something of real significance to say.” The choir of St John's College, Oxford has recorded the final movement, 'Lord, thou hast been our refuge'. The Requiem was followed by his final major work for chorus, the secular Venus’ Praise, a setting of seven sixteenth and seventeenth century English poems.
Even less known are the operas, which include a children’s ballad opera, John Barleycorn, and two intriguing collaborations with his friend Kingsley Amis providing the texts. The first, Amberley Hall, was described by Montgomery as “a mildly scandalous burlesque set in England in the 18th century.” The second, To Move the Passions, was a ballad opera commissioned for the 1951 Festival of Britain. Both remained unfinished, and Amis complained that Montgomery was too busy “writing filthy film scores and stinking stories for the popular press.”
Of the orchestral concert works, only Overture to a Fairy Tale and the Concertino for String Orchestra of 1950 - a substantial three movement piece despite the modest title, and the only purely instrumental work Montgomery ever had published - are generally available as recordings. There are recordings of two concert works derived from film scores: Scottish Aubade (from the 1952 documentary film Scottish Highlands) and Scottish Lullaby (from The Kidnappers, 1953).
Philip Lane calls Montgomery "a composer of talent who was perhaps side-tracked, and, not helped by increasing alcoholism, unable to fulfil his full potential. On the other hand, not every composer has their music heard by millions throughout the world, even though not every listener is aware of the composer’s name."
Montgomery returned to literature at the end of his life, with the final Crispin novel, Glimpses of the Moon. By now, the composer character, Broderick Thouless, is writing “difficult” film music and light concert works, rather than the other way round (as it was with Napier in Frequent Hearses). Such comic perversity is characteristic of Crispin. But Montgomery's output of music and fiction all but ceased after the 1950s, although he continued to write reviews of crime novels and science fiction works for The Sunday Times (praising the early works of both P. D. James and Ruth Rendell). He had always been a heavy drinker and there was a long gap in his writing during a time when he was suffering from alcohol problems. Otherwise he enjoyed a quiet life (enlivened by music, reading, church-going and bridge) in Totnes, Devon, where he resisted all attempts to develop or exploit the district, and visited London as little as possible. He moved to a new house he had built at Higher Week, a hamlet near Dartington, in 1964. The 1969 short story We Know You're Busy Writing, But We Thought You Wouldn't Mind If We Just Dropped in for a Minute humorously evokes the difficulties of a writer balancing his social and leisure inclinations with the discipline of writing. In 1976 he married his secretary Ann, two years before he died from alcohol-related problems aged 56.
A biography by David Whittle, Bruce Montgomery/Edmund Crispin: A Life in Music and Books (ISBN 0754634434) was published in June 2007. A previously unpublished novella, featuring Gervase Fen, "The Hours of Darkness," has been included in the 2019 edition of the annual anthology, Bodies from the Library.
Gareth Roberts has said that the tone of his Doctor Who novel The Well-Mannered War was modelled upon Crispin's style. He also remarks (of The Moving Toyshop) that "It's more like Doctor Who than Doctor Who." Christopher Fowler pays homage to The Moving Toyshop in The Victoria Vanishes, his sixth Bryant & May novel.
All feature Gervase Fen.
Beware of the Trains (1953)
Fen Country (1979)
Crispin also edited seven volumes entitled Best Science Fiction, which were published during the 1960s.