2 October 2021 marks the 100th birthday of Robert Bruce Montgomery, composer and writer, who wrote detective stories under the pseudonym Edmund Crispin, and musical scores including for the early films in the Carry On series. To celebrate, I read The Case of the Gilded Fly (1944), the first book to feature Crispin’s detective, Oxford don Gervase Fen. This was my first time reading the book, though I have read a couple of others in the series before. This was a humorous book full of literary allusions and references, but also a nice juicy mystery at its heart.
The Case of the Gilded Fly opens with the last leg of a train journey to Oxford on which are 11 different characters central to our mystery. Among them are Gervase Fen who is a professor of English Language and Literature who also is an amateur detective with several cases to his credit and Chief Constable Sir Richard Freeman, his friend, who has an interest in literary criticism. The other 9 are various characters connected in some way with the repertory theatre at Oxford, some who work there and others headed down to perform a play, while a third group is connected with the others in different ways. We have Robert Warner, the writer/director of ‘Metromania’, his girlfriend and lead in the play, Rachel West; actresses and step sisters Yseut and Helen Haskell—the former is detested by nearly everyone; producer Sheila McGaw; musician/organist Donald Fellowes, and young student Jean Whitelegge who is a student, secretary of the Oxford University Theatre Club and also works as a prop girl at the repertory; Nicholas Barclay, who spews Shakespeare and is interested in Donald’s musical talents; and finally journalist and Fen’s former student Nigel Blake. I must say the introduction of this whole cast of characters at once did create some confusion for me at the start for I found it a little hard to keep straight in my mind who was who and the relationships between the lot, but a little more into the story this was resolved.
Yseut who is pretty but spiteful and involved with more than one of the company, seems to enjoy stirring up trouble, using every opportunity–whether at drinks, during rehearsals or a party thrown by an artillery officer on leave (Peter Graham)—to get people’s hackles up. So, it isn’t much of a surprise when she turns up dead. She is found shot just some distance away from Fen’s rooms, and at a time when more than one of those who had a grudge against her is on the premises. All the evidence seems to point to suicide, and the police are inclined to think so as well. However, Fen is convinced that this was murder and sets out to prove it. But with almost everyone connected with her openly relieved at her death, and most of them also with motives to do away with her, is Fen able to identify the right person?
This was a really enjoyable first book in the series, in which I not only liked the mystery but also loved the writing and even more so, the humour. The book is full of literary allusions and references and I’m sure I didn’t catch on to them all; there were some I knew were references but not quite where they came from (there were also plenty of references to music as well, one key to the plot, also reflecting Crispin’s background). My favourites though were the Alice ones, with Fen on one occasion exclaiming ‘oh dear, oh dear, I shall be too late’ like the White Rabbit, ‘waking up like the Dormouse’ on another, and on a third, crying out, ‘oh my ears and whiskers’ also echoing the rabbit!
The writing is also full of humour all through, which I enjoyed (including when poor Mrs Fen, ‘Dolly’—whom I met for the first time since she hadn’t appeared in the two other books I read—commits ‘suicide’ when asked so that Fen can figure out how the body would have fallen). I particularly enjoyed all the instances where Fen breaks ‘the fourth wall’ (something Karen has written about in her wonderful post celebrating Crispin earlier this week here), with Fen and other characters acknowledging that they are merely characters in a detective story. So, we have Fen saying,
I’m the only literary critic turned detective in the whole of fiction.
On another occasion when he begins to speak about things having to be put into camouflage in a detective novel, Sir Richard has this to say:
Really, Gervase. If there’s anything I profoundly dislike, it is the sort of detective story in which one of the characters propounds views on how detective stories should be written…
Fen, like many fictional detectives, knows whodunit almost immediately but refuses to reveal his suspicions, only for Sir Richard to remark with a groan:
Oh Lord!…Mystification again. I know: it can’t come out till the last chapter.
There are many others throughout the book, and all of them great fun.
The book was published in 1944 towards the end of the war and while the war isn’t central to the story, it is very much present for instance, in Peter Graham, the artillery Captain whom the company meets at Oxford, to the state of things at Fen’s college (younger students and such), the black out and Nicholas having been invalided after Dunkirk.
But amidst all this fun and Fen’s droll observations (and of course, the more sombre shadows of the war), we also have a proper mystery at the core. Yseut Haskell has been murdered, and Fen is working out the solution; well, not quite since he says he knows it right from the start, it is more the how and the requisite evidence he is working on. With so many suspects all of whom had motives, and not a single one with a particularly solid alibi, I wasn’t sure which of them it could be. So, there was a surprise in the who, how and why. Nigel Blake serves as a kind of Watson here, with Fen giving him the facts and asking him to work it out for himself. Fen also has to work through the moral dilemma of whether he should indeed give the murderer up, though ultimately an incident that occurs decides him.
This was a lovely read for me, and I look forward to reading more of Crispin’s books and his wonderful writing!