Ever since I first heard the name of Gervase Phinn, there has been something tugging at the back of my mind, like a bit of chewing gum caught on a shoe, a rattle in the bonnet, or unfamiliar birdsong in the garden. Gervase Phinn. He's the schools inspector who has made a name for himself collecting the funny doings and sayings of children. Gervase Phinn. It wasn't just that the name seemed so unlikely. It's also that I thought I had come across it before somewhere else. Gervase Phinn...
I worked it out eventually, though by sheer chance, not detective work. From time to time I decide that I must have a bit of light reading (one has to have a bit of relief from all that James Joyce and Proust one reads all the time) and so I tend to grab a thriller or collection of humour from the escapist shelf and sink into it. The other day I took down a book I don't think I had ever read before, a Penguin Classic Crime reissue called The Case of the Gilded Fly by Edmund Crispin.
I had read one other of Mr Crispin's crime novels last year, The Moving Toyshop, and although the plot was quite ludicrous and hard to follow, the characters were so engaging and the writing so mischievous, that I had thoroughly enjoyed it. So off I went with The Case of the Gilded Fly which, like the other one, is set in wartime Oxford and involved the murder of a most unpleasant though sexy actress, and I thoroughly enjoyed this one too (even though the plot was bizarrely complicated etc etc) but what I had forgotten was that the super sleuth who solves the murders in both books goes under the unusual name of Gervase Fen.
Do you see a likeness?
Bit of a similarity, wouldn't you say?
Now, there are several possible explanations for this uncanny resemblance.
One is coincidence. Which is so boring that we shall really have to discard it.
Another is that Mr Gervase Phinn is really called Felix Proctor or something banal, but that because of his work as a schools inspector he had to use a pseudonym and decided to adopt (and adapt) the name of a fictional detective.
Yet another is that Mr Phinn's parents loved the detective novels of Mr Edmund Crispin so much that they decided to call their little baby Gervase Phinn, and it is actually an entirely genuine name.
It might also be possible that it's quite the other way round, and that Edmund Crispin named his hero after the schools inspector. Well, it might be possible, were it not that both the Crispin books were written in the 1940s, 60 years ago.
Actually, Mr Crispin himself is a bit of a mystery. His real name was Bruce Montgomery. He was an organ scholar at Oxford in the 1940s and went around in the same crowd as Philip Larkin and Kingsley Amis, of whom he was a great mate. In fact, he achieved success long before the others, as he published The Case of the Gilded Fly under the name of Edmund Crispin while still an undergraduate, and had a bit of a best-seller on his hands. He wrote more crime thrillers and also, later, edited some science fiction anthologies for Faber (which were my own introduction to science fiction and which I still treasure). But in the 1950s he made most of his money out of writing film scores, including (and this seems extraordinary to me) many of the Carry On films.
And he also created Gervase Fen.
Which sounds so like Gervase Phinn.
What a mystery...
And until someone better informed than I am writes in and tells me the explanation, I am afraid that is where we must leave it. Perhaps I can leave the last word to Ned Sherrin, who introduced a band with the strange name of Nizlopi on Loose Ends on Saturday, and said: "Bitter experience on this programme has taught me that if you ask the explanation of a band's strange name, it is always an anti-climax, so just play, lads ...", and if it turns out to be the same with the Gervase mystery, rest assured I shall keep it to myself.
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