Edmund Crispin: The Case of the Gilded Fly

The Case of the Gilded FlyThe Case of the Gilded Fly
Edmund Crispin
First published in the UK 1944, Victor Gollancz
This edition Vintage, 2009
ISBN: 9780099542131
206 pages
Source: City Bookshop

The Case of the Gilded Fly is the first mystery novel by Edmund Crispin. Crispin was a pseudonym of Bruce Montgomery, a professor of music who, as well as the occasional novel, wrote the themes for the Carry On comedies in the 50s.

Crispin’s series protagonist is Professor Gervase Fen, an academic at St Christopher’s College in Oxford who would quite clearly prefer to be a Scotland Yard detective (by contrast he has a policeman friend who enjoys some success as a literary critic).

Fen models himself on fictional detectives and is almost always play-acting some kind of quirk.

Fen nodded. ‘Personally,’ he said a little absently, ‘I never go to the cinema except to sleep; I find the atmosphere very soporific.’ He gazed about him, seeming to seek admiration and approval for this eccentricity.

He is rude to everyone without exception, drives wildly (his car is regrettably absent from this story), and is an infuriatingly brilliant investigator.

‘And now, the crime itself. Concentrate on the following points:
‘(1) the fact that the wireless was playing the Meistersinger overture, followed by Heldenleben – a rich teutonic concoction;
‘(2) the fact that there was a smell of gunpowder smoke in the room when we entered it;
‘(3) the fact that nothing was touched for at least a quarter of an hour after we came in.
‘If that doesn’t give it you,’ he concluded, comfortable in the assurance it would do nothing of the sort, ‘then you’re an imbecile.’

Fen has a different ‘Watson’ for every case, and this time the role is filled by Nigel Blake, a young journalist who is drawn into the world of the theatre by his attraction to a young actress called Helen Haskell. Nigel is essentially the romantic lead, but his journalistic recall is of use to Fen in reconstructing events leading up to the murder of Helen’s half-sister Yseut.

Yseut is one of those murder victims who seem to die unregretted by everyone. She is so irredeemable that I began to suspect she represented a treacherous ex of Montgomery’s – certainly a fair few pages are devoted to scathing accounts of her behaviour.

To a considerable extent we are all of necessity preoccupied with ourselves, but with her the preoccupation was exclusive, and largely of a sexual nature into the bargain. She was still young […] with full breasts and hips a little crudely emphasised by the clothes she wore […] Her features, pretty enough in a conventional way, bore little hints of the character within – a trifle of selfishness, a trifle of conceit; her conversation was intellectually pretentious and empty; her attitude to the other sex was too outspokenly come-hither to please more than a very few of them…

To be honest, this began to put me off The Gilded Fly: it pretty rapidly began to look downright misogynistic.

Given Yseut’s innumerable unforgiveable faults, there is no shortage of potential killers. Robert Warner, the satirical dramatist whose brilliant new play Metromania provides a backdrop for the book, is an ex-lover of Yseut whom she blackmails happily. Rachel West is Robert’s mistress. Donald Fellowes, a college organist fond of bow ties and gin, is in love with Yseut; Jean Whitlegge loves Donald and hates Yseut as a result. Sheila McGaw, the repertory theatre producer, a ‘tall young woman with trousers’ has an axe to grind after accusations about her sexuality cost her some work. And finally, Nigel’s girlfriend Helen is the chief beneficiary of Yseut’s fortune.

This was the first Fen book, written when Crispin was an undergraduate, but it is instantly recognisable as his work. I don’t think his style changed throughout his career, so I suspect you either like him or you don’t. His signature tricks are a postmodern approach (Fen relates himself to other fictional detectives, and occasionally the narrative breaks the fourth wall) and deliberately heavy-handed literary allusion. In this story there are several interludes clearly inspired by Shakespeare (including a chapter in which lots of people get engaged). You’ll have to look up the gilded fly reference. And you can always learn some new vocabulary along the way. In this one ‘apolaustic’ had to be looked up.

I may just not have been in the right frame of mind, or it may have been the treatment of poor old Yseut, but this one didn’t quite chime for me. Do read Crispin, but maybe start elsewhere.


See also: The Moving Toyshop, Karyn Reeves’ review from A Penguin a Week, Margot’s review at Confessions.

Final destination: A keeper


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Past Offences by Rich Westwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

About pastoffences

Past Offences exists to review classic crime and mystery books, with ‘classic’ meaning books originally published before 1987.
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12 Responses to Edmund Crispin: The Case of the Gilded Fly

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    I confess to being a huge Fen fan – I love the way Crispin writes, his breaking of the fourth wall, Fen’s crabbiness. I guess there is misogyny there, but no more than a lot of novels from that time – and I’m not sure if Montgomery was particularly fond of women! Nevertheless, the best of Crispin baffles me and makes me laugh out loud, so that makes me happy!

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  2. Thank you, Rich, for the kind mention. I honestly think some of Crispin’s later work is better, so perhaps you’re right about starting at a different point. That said though, I do like Gervase Fen quite a lot, and the wit in the novel is, I think, nicely done. So is your review.

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  3. Not my favourite Crispin I’ll admit but I do like his droll humour and clever plotting – but will admit, it has been ages since I looked at this one.

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  4. Feel much better–love anything set in Oxford and tried twice with this and kept putting it aside. Now I can leave it there!

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    • westwoodrich says:

      No problem 🙂

      (If it helps with Oxford books, I wasn’t overwhelmed by The Moving Toyshop the last time I read it. Although general opinion seems to make it Crispin’s best, I thought the farcical chase scene went on for too long.)

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  5. Col says:

    I picked up a copy of this a couple of weeks ago, thinking I ought to make the effort with at least one Crispin – now you tell me not this one!

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    • westwoodrich says:

      Sorry Col! At least you’ll very quickly decide whether you like his style or not. For a first novel published at a relatively young age, it’s incredibly representative of his work. I’d give it a go, and if you find it promising, get hold of The Long Divorce (my favourite).

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  6. rhbblog says:

    I’d almost forgotten the Fen series; will revisit after many years. Thanks for the prompt!

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  7. heavenali says:

    Oh dear 🙂 another batch of detective novels I am now desperate to read.

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  8. Pingback: Simon Brett: What Bloody Man is That? | Past Offences

  9. TracyK says:

    I have only read two books by Crispin, this one and The Moving Toyshop. I liked Moving Toyshop, but not this one. My husband passed on his collection of the Gervase Fen series, so I will try more.

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