The Case of the Gilded Fly by Edmund Crispin

Yes, I *do* possess three copies of this book…

That might seem like a hyperbolic heading, but I’ve read and returned to the work of Edmund Crispin many times over the years; each time I’ve become more convinced of that genius and it’s a statement by which I’m prepared to stand! 🙂 I’ve written about his work on the Ramblings before – back in 2012 I revisited one of his novels, and more recently some of his shorter works earlier this year; however, the fact that his first novel “The Case of the Gilded Fly” was published in 1944 gave me the perfect excuse to pick up another Crispin and wallow in the glory of his writing…

‘I’m a very good detective myself… in fact I’m the only literary critic turned detective in the whole of fiction.’

Crispin’s real name was Bruce Montgomery (he adopted his pseudonym from a character in Michael Innes’s book Hamlet, Revenge!); and under that name he was a successful musician and composer, producing everything from choral works to themes and scores for the Carry On films amongst others. He also wrote many film screenplays; but to my mind his greatest achievement was the creation of his detective, Gervase Fen.

Fen (who merits his own Wikipedia page) is an unlikely detective; an Oxford don, often described as lanky, cheerful and ruddy faced with some rather recalcitrant hair, he has a wife Dolly and son John, and when we make his first acquaintance in this book he’s already established as something of a sleuth. As Professor of English Language and Literature at the fictional St. Christopher’s College you would think he had enough to do; but his eternally restless mind seems unable to leave an unsolved mystery alone (he’s often lumbered with impossible or locked room crimes), and “Gilded Fly…” does seem essentially insoluble….

Although published in 1944, the book is set in 1940, and playwright Robert Warner has decided to launch his new work in repertory in Oxford rather than on the London stage. So he and an assorted cast of characters (both from his play and in the book!) decamp to the university city bringing with them all their dramas and issues. Central to the anguish is Yseut Haskell, a sulky, self-obsessed nasty piece of work attempting to make her way as an actress. Yseut causes havoc all around her, particularly involving a young organist who’s in love with her, the women in love with *him*, Warner himself who’d had a previous fling with Yseut, Warner’s mistress Rachel Ward – well, you get the picture. The situation is volatile, to say the least….

Needless to say, Yseut is murdered and in a fashion that makes it seem to be a real locked-room style mystery. No-one can have got into the room. No-one can have got close enough to have shot her without her knowing. There is no weapon. So who did it, how and why? (The latter may seem to be the simplest one to answer, but any number of the characters had a very good motive to put Yseut out of action, so the final solution is actually ingenious).

‘There are only a few relevant questions to be asked, and the whole thing’s over. Yet they have to be submerged in a mass of irrelevant – stuff.’ He pronounced the word with a disgust intensified by his inability to think of a better one. ‘That’s all very well in a detective novel,. where it has to be put in to camouflage the significant things…’

Fen, of course, works out how it was done and why whom quite early on, but has no real proof and so he therefore spends much of the book annoying the rest of the characters! There is also plenty of moral agitation about whether he should actually intervene when the police have decided it was suicide, since Yseut was nothing but bad. Complications abound in the form of a ghostly legend; Fen spars with the local Chief Superintendent, Sir Richard Freeman, who is as much inclined to be a literary critic as Fen is a detective; various characters fall in and out of love; an ancient and deaf don called Wilkes (who will turn up in later books) provides light relief; and the whole book is a glorious, funny, clever, scary and thought-provoking work. As you can tell, I loved it…!

The back of a couple of my old Penguins with Crispin pix and interesting facts

I could say so much about the skill of Crispin’s writing; the opening chapter alone offers a masterclass example of how to start a crime novel, with a sequence of paragraphs introducing each of the characters as they travel by train to Oxford. The setting is of course important, and brilliantly conjured; and the book is laced with humour, so much so that I was regularly laughing out loud because it was so very, very funny. There is a surprising frankness in the book (although not in the graphic sense) in the discussion of sex as a motivating factor and an honesty in dealing with love affairs, and this may be because the book was written and published during WW2 when peacetime morality and restrictions were known to have loosened. As a consequence, there’s a darkness in the story, from the events of the ghost story to the motivations and emotions of the various characters. There’s also the bizarre in a very funny, yet alarming cameo appearance of an enclosure of monkeys – about which I will say no more. You just have to read this!

The book bristles with literary allusions; and one of the things I love most about the Fen books is the way Crispin plays with the reader and the genre. He’s notorious for his in jokes and for regularly breaking the fourth wall; an early reference to a bored young pianist called Bruce in the orchestra pit of the theatre is surely a self-deprecating acknowledgement of Crispin’s other career; and Fen’s exclamation of “Heaven grant Gideon Fell never becomes privy to my lunacy; I should never hear the end of it” is a knowing nod to the king of locked room mysteries. I could of course pick out many more!

Every time I return to the Gervase Fen stories I realise why I was so bowled over when I first read them; and I think that I really should sit down and read them all again. It’s hard to believe “Gilded Fly…” was the first, as Fen springs onto the page so fully formed you have to remind yourself he’s only making his debut. I’m so glad the #1944Club sent me back to Crispin’s work; and as this book is the first in the series, I’m awfully tempted to make a winter project of re-reading all of his books in order…. 😉


As an aside, when digging in the stacks to find my Crispins, I realised that I actually possess three copies of “Gilded Fly…” (as you can see in the photo at the top of this post). The old Penguin I’ve had for decades (like all of my old Crispin Penguins). And it’s an intriguing edition as it claims to have been published in 1937 not 1944 as the other versions do – which is patently impossible as there wasn’t a war yet in 1937….

Anyway, as you can see from my pile of Crispins I have all of his works, and the two modern “Gilded Fly…” editions may have to go (one came from ex library stock and one was gifted by BFF J. at some point). I may give these away if anyone is interested enough – give me a shout! 🙂

But anyway – I have no excuse not to re-read, now do I???