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ELGAR IN CRIME FICTION by Philip Scowcroft

As an ardent Elgar enthusiast who has made an in-depth study of Music in English Detective Fiction it is interesting to see how many crime stories include mention of Elgar.

Several crime writers, Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers and Edmund Crispin among them, were musicians, though none of those three mentions Elgar that I recall. A number of great fictional detectives were also musical: Sherlock Holmes, though he retired from active practice in about 1903, rather early for Elgar's great period (but see later) and Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey, but his floreat was 1923-36, a period when E.E.'s reputation was near its lowest ebb. Neither mentions Elgar; but P.D. James' Commander Adam Dalgleish is fortunate to be around now the composer's reputation has revived. In 'Devices and Desires' (Faber, 1989) he listens to the Cello Concerto on record:

...the plaintive notes evoking those long, hot Edwardian summers known to him only from novels and poetry, the peace, the certainty, the optimism of the England into which his aunt had been born.

Elgar is associated in most minds indeed with the Edwardian age and when John Dickson Carr wrote his 'The Witch of the Low Tide' (Hamish Hamilton, 1961), one of a trilogy of Scotland Yard historical novels, mere mention of Land of Hope and Glory played by a seaside band was enough to "place" the novel for us in 1907.

It is however the Enigma Variations which figure most in crime novels. There is Michael Kenyon's 'The Enigma Variations' (Putnam, 1981); they are a clue to a crossword in Robert Richardson's 'Bellringer Street' (Gollancz, 1988); while in Ivan Baker's 'Death and Variations' (Hale, 1977) the victim dies, by gunshot, while listening to an LP of the Variations - but what is the significance of the subsequent substitution of a Mahler symphony on the record player? Brian Murphy's 'The Enigma Variations' (Scribner, 1981) is set on an American college campus. Rape is followed by the murder of the rapist; a lecturer in the Music Faculty, who is working on a study of Elgar, investigates and discovers the killer. Most of the characters bear the names, or variants thereof, of "my friends pictured within". The book is too free with four letter words for my taste.

T.L.W. Hubbard's 'A Baton for the Conductor' (Faber, 1957) is a comedy thriller "romp". A psychiatrist treating a frustrated amateur musician arranges for a British conductor to be kidnapped on his way to a mid-European festival so that his patient can rehearse and conduct the Festival Orchestra. The programme is English - Vaughan Williams, Delius, and the Enigma although the "stand-in" substitutes Beethoven's Eroica Symphony for Delius, whom he cannot stand. However, events dictate that he does not conduct the concert.

Finally we revert to Sherlock Holmes. Many writers, not content with Conan Doyle's sixty stories about him, have written "spoof" Holmes tales. One is The Worcester Enigma, by James Miles ( Published in Mystery Magazine and reprinted in Thomas Godfrey (ed.) 'Country House Murders' (O'Mara, 1989). In this, set in 1888 apparently, we see Elgar playing Salut d'Amour, not only does the Great Detective encounter our greatest composer and solves a pretty little problem involving Alice Roberts' father, but it is also revealed that the Enigma theme derives from Holmes' doodling on his violin when Elgar goes to consult him! It seems churlish to point out that both Alice's parents were dead by 1888 and that Malvern is not a "suburb of Worcester"; but perhaps we can blame Dr Watson's unscientific chronicling for the discrepancies.

Philip L Scowcroft

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