THIS is the second part of the article, which we began on the Nostalgia page of September 4, about the composer Bruce Montgomery who was born in Chesham Bois and also wrote Whodunnits as Edmund Crispin. In that article we looked at his early life, until he “went up” to Oxford University in c.1940.

At Oxford, Montgomery participated in all aspects of the university’s musical life becoming the organist and choirmaster for St John’s College. Here he also turned his hand to detective fiction for the first time. After reading The Crooked Hinge by John Dickson Carr he was inspired to write a novel in the 14-day Easter holiday. As he should have been revising for his finals this probably explains why such a high achiever only attained a second-class honours degree!

Montgomery’s experiences backstage at the Amersham Playhouse provided the setting for The Case of the Gilded Fly. His amateur detective, Gervase Fen, an Oxford professor of English, was supposedly based on his own tutor although as the series progresses, he takes on more of the characteristics of the author. The book contains numerous literary references which I had to Google. Having a dictionary to hand also helped! However, it was published by Gollancz and was an immediate success.

Seven books followed in quick succession all containing humour, an element of farce, social satire, idiosyncratic characters, and an inventive murder mystery. Montgomery’s life is frequently reflected in the setting of the novels. Love Lies Bleeding is set in a boarding school based on Shrewsbury, where Montgomery briefly taught, and Frequent Hearses is set in a film studio based on Pinewood.

All books are still in print but his most famous work, The Moving Toyshop, was recently published with new illustrations by Folio. PD James introduced this edition and explained why it was one of her top five detective novels. Montgomery dedicated the book to his close friend Philip Larkin, his contemporary at Oxford who recalled “spending most of our time swaying about with laughter on bar stools”. Alfred Hitchcock purchased partial rights of The Moving Toyshop to use the idea of a carousel spinning out of control at the end of Strangers on a Train.

In 1947, after publishing his fourth book and still only in his 20s Montgomery was invited to join the highly distinguished Detection Club. This was an English social club of the country’s finest writers of detective fiction, including Agatha Christie (who like Montgomery, was also a fine musician as she was a trained concert pianist) Margery Allingham, John Dickson Carr and Dorothy L Sayers.

For me, the best book is the poison pen novel The Long Divorce. Unusually for a Crispin novel this features strong, vivid, female characters, including an intelligent woman doctor and a sensitive 16-year girl. This time the setting is a village which bears a strong resemblance to the Chesham Bois of his childhood, “a residential village for members of the cultured upper middle class… who needed to be within easy reach of London but who could dictate their own time of arriving there”.

The following description in the novel could easily be applied to the High Street in Old Amersham, “the gentle curve of the broad and airy main street; to his left was an irregular but graceful line of little Georgian and Queen Anne houses, broken half way along by the façade of ‘The Marlborough Head’; and to his right was a row of cottages, with a discreet and barely perceptible shop or two interspersed amongst them.”

Printed in 1951 this proved to be Montgomery’s last novel for another 26 years. That same year his most important musical work, An Oxford Requiem, was performed by the London Symphony Orchestra to celebrate the Festival of Britain. This modernist piece was written in memory of his friend and musical mentor, Godfrey Sampson. The Times review of 25 May described it as “Montgomery’s most considerable achievement to date; it confirms the suspicion that he is a composer with something of real significance to say”.

Now established as composer of film scores Montgomery found the financial remuneration provided by the film world too tempting. This meant he could seriously indulge in his passion for fast cars and high living. He built himself a luxury bungalow in Devon but continued to visit London frequently for work. If not staying at one of his London clubs, he usually stayed at the Bull in Gerrards Cross which was particularly handy for Pinewood Studios.

Montgomery’s film career reached its pinnacle in 1961 with the successful comedy Raising the Wind. Set in a music college, it starred Sid James and Leslie Phillips. Montgomery composed the musical score (his 40th) and wrote the screenplay. He also conducted, was technical advisor and had a cameo role. Sadly, he never completed another film score. Whilst working on Carry on Cruising in 1962 his excessive drinking ruined the shooting schedule and he was replaced by his collaborator Eric Rogers. According to his biographer David Whittle this rejection plunged him into alcoholism. This seriously affected his health and was a factor in his early death at the age of 56.

Despite the drinking and his poor health, his final years were not without success. He edited several collections of Science Fiction short stories and working for The Sunday Times. became one of Britain’s leading critics of detective fiction. He championed PD James and Ruth Rendell and encouraged the writing of his close Oxford friends Philip Larkin and Kingsley Amis. As his own career declined and his friends’ reputations grew, he wrote to Larkin that he felt like an “ageing hare overtaken by squads of implacable tortoises”.

Two books of short stories were also published, Beware of the Trains in 1953 and Fen Country posthumously in 1979. Most of these were originally distributed in the Evening Standard and are particularly enjoyable. Many belong to the ‘fair play’ genre where the reader has sufficient clues to solve the crime. My personal favourite is the splendidly titled We Know You’re Busy Writing, But We Thought You Wouldn’t Mind If We Just Dropped in for a Minute where the writer ends up murdering his unwelcome guests. I am sure many writers can relate to that one!

His final novel The Glimpses of the Moon was published in 1977 after much encouragement by his wife and former secretary, Ann and was well received despite its flaws. Sadly, the drinking continued, and his health declined rapidly. He died from heart failure in a Plymouth hospital on 15 September 1978 and was buried in Dartington, Devon.

The full version of this article can be found on the history pages of