The Case of the Gilded Fly by Edmund Crispin

Like many people, I first encountered Edmund Crispin’s Oxford don detective Gervase Fen in The Moving Toyshop, the third in the series and the one which is usually said to be his best. I loved it and wanted to read more, so going back to the beginning of the series and reading The Case of the Gilded Fly seemed a good idea. As it was published in 1944 I had hoped to read it for last month’s 1944 Club but didn’t have time and ended up reading it after the event was over.

The novel opens with an introduction to each of the main characters as they travel to Oxford on the train. Among them are Gervase Fen, Professor of English Language and Literature at Oxford University, and his old friend the Chief Constable, Sir Richard Freeman. Ironically, Fen’s passion is for detection, while Sir Richard’s is for literature, which leads to some interesting conversations between the two of them. Although this is the first book in the series, it is implied that Fen already has some experience of solving mysteries. He certainly has no difficulty in solving the ‘Case of the Gilded Fly’, even though everyone else finds it baffling.

Also arriving on the same train as Fen and Sir Richard are Robert Warner, a playwright who has chosen an Oxford theatre for the premiere of his new play, and several members of the cast. One of these is the aspiring young actress Yseut Haskell, a spiteful, self-obsessed person who seems to cause trouble everywhere she goes. As we get to know the characters better during their first night in Oxford, we discover that almost everyone has a reason to dislike her, so when Yseut is found dead in a room in the college the next day, there’s no shortage of people with motives. The problem is, none of them seemed to have had an opportunity to enter the room unobserved and carry out the murder. How did the killer manage it? And what is the significance of the Egyptian-style gilded ring found on Yseut’s finger?

This is a complex locked-room-style mystery with a lot of discussion of alibis, floor plans and the timings of events. I didn’t come close to solving it, although Fen works it out very early on but has no proof and keeps us waiting until the end to find out who did it and how it was done. He also faces a moral dilemma: as Yseut was such an unpleasant person and nobody is particularly sorry to see her dead, does he really want the killer to be punished – especially as the police have already decided it was suicide? In my opinion Yseut had done nothing to deserve being murdered, but I suppose this provides a reason why Fen doesn’t immediately tell the police what he knows and bring the novel to an end before it even begins!

I enjoyed this book, but I found it slightly disappointing in comparison to The Moving Toyshop. As a more conventional sort of mystery, it doesn’t have quite the same feeling of originality and novelty, and although there are still plenty of witty comments and literary allusions flying back and forth between Fen and his friends, they are not as much fun as the limericks and ‘Detestable Characters in Fiction’ game in The Moving Toyshop. It’s possible that I would have liked The Case of the Gilded Fly more if I’d read it first and had nothing to compare it with.

Have you read any of the Gervase Fen mysteries? Which ones are your favourites?

My Commonplace Book: October 2016

A summary of last month’s reading, in words and pictures.

commonplace book
Definition:
noun
a notebook in which quotations, poems, remarks, etc, that catch the owner’s attention are entered

Collins English Dictionary

~

“Most people only want a quiet life,” I said. “Even those of us who were once radicals.” I smiled wryly at Roger. He nodded in acknowledgement.

“Fanatics on both sides,” old Ryprose said gloomily. “And all we poor ordinary folk in the middle. Sometimes I fear they will bring death to us all.”

Revelation by CJ Sansom (2008)

~

edward-lear-book-of-nonsense

“Books,” the driver resumed. “I’m a great reader. I am. Not poetry. Love stories and murder books. I joined one o’ them” – he heaved a long sigh; with vast effort his mind laboured and brought forth – “circulatin’ libraries”. He brooded darkly. “But I’m sick of it now. I’ve read all that’s any good in it.”

The Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispin (1946)

~

“We shall wait upon tomorrow,” he said.

“But – what if tomorrow is worse than today?”

“Then we shall wait upon the day after tomorrow.”

“And so forth?” I asked.

“And so forth,” Dogger said.

The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches by Alan Bradley (2014)

~

In his masterwork, The Landscape of Criminal Investigation, Atticus Pünd had written: ‘One can think of the truth as eine vertiefung – a sort of deep valley which may not be visible from a distance but which will come upon you quite suddenly. There are many ways to arrive there. A line of questioning that turns out to be irrelevant still has the power to bring you nearer to your goal. There are no wasted journeys in the detection of a crime.’

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz (2016)

~

“But seriously Poirot, what a hobby! Compare that to -” his voice sank to an appreciative purr – “an easy chair in front of a wood fire in a long low room lined with books – must be a long room – not a square one. Books all round one. A glass of port – and a book open in your hand. Time rolls back as you read.”

The Labours of Hercules by Agatha Christie (1947)

~

robert-cecil

“Watch and wait,” says Burghley. “You have a valuable nugget of information, but that is all it is at this stage. Watch the lady; watch and wait.” Cecil is reminded of being fleeced by a card trickster once, who had said the very same thing – watch the lady. He lost all the gold buttons from his doublet. That was a lesson learned.

Watch the Lady by Elizabeth Fremantle (2015)

~

Sometimes I would like to cry. I close my eyes. Why weren’t we designed so that we can close our ears as well? (Perhaps because we would never open them.) Is there some way that I could accelerate my evolution and develop earlids?

Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson (1995)

~

Why the Egyptian, Arabic, Abyssinian, Choctaw? Well, what tongue does the wind talk? What nationality is a storm? What country do rains come from? What color is lightning? Where does thunder go when it dies?

Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury (1962)

~

lantern-clock

And as the seconds and minutes moved on, I pondered Man’s efforts at the representation or ‘capture’ of Time, and I thought how, for Clockmakers like Hollers, the very Commodity with which they were trying to work was a heartless and capricious Enemy, who stole from them all the while and never rested.

Merivel: A Man of His Time by Rose Tremain (2013)

~

A Gothic gate, richly ornamented with fret-work, which opened into the main body of the edifice, but which was now obstructed with brush-wood, remained entire. Above the vast and magnificent portal of this gate arose a window of the same order, whose pointed arches still exhibited fragments of stained glass, once the pride of monkish devotion. La Motte, thinking it possible it might yet shelter some human being, advanced to the gate and lifted a mossy knocker. The hollow sounds rung through the emptiness of the place. After waiting a few minutes, he forced back the gate, which was heavy with iron work, and creaked harshly on its hinges…

The Romance of the Forest by Ann Radcliffe (1791)

~

I could not possibly go home, I reflected, and add as a serious contribution to the study of women and fiction that women have less hair on their bodies than men, or that the age of puberty among the South Sea Islanders is nine — or is it ninety? — even the handwriting had become in its distraction indecipherable. It was disgraceful to have nothing more weighty or respectable to show after a whole morning’s work.

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf (1929)

~

sappho

Not everyone can write as legibly as I; Father made me spend hours at my tablets, saying that my poems must be written down by me as I myself have composed them, so they will not be distorted in later years by other singers. “For you have great gifts from the Muses,” he said. “I would not have them lost to the world that comes after.”

Burning Sappho by Martha Rofheart (1974)

~

“I ain’t in the habit of picking other folks’ roses without leave,” said she.

As Rebecca spoke she started violently and lost sight of her resentment, for something singular happened. Suddenly the rosebush was agitated violently as if by a gust of wind, yet it was a remarkably still day. Not a leaf of the hydrangea standing on the terrace close to the rose trembled.

“What on earth -” began Rebecca; then she stopped with a gasp at the sight of the other woman’s face. Although a face, it gave somehow the impression of a desperately clutched hand of secrecy.

Small and Spooky edited by M.R. Nelson (2016)

~

Time was not something then we thought of as an item that possessed an ending, but something that would go on forever, all rested and stopped in that moment. Hard to say what I mean by that. You look back at all the endless years when you never had that thought. I am doing that now as I write these words in Tennessee. I am thinking of the days without end of my life.

Days Without End by Sebastian Barry (2016)

~

“You don’t think there’ll really be a war, do you?” she asked anxiously, as her work was for the maimed wrecks of men left by the 1914-18 war – and I could understand her horror of another. But when I looked at the Green Cat I was not sure and I did not reply.

A Chelsea Concerto by Frances Faviell (1959)

~

Favourite books read in October: Revelation, The Moving Toyshop and Magpie Murders

The Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispin

the-moving-toyshop I can’t remember where or when I first heard about this book, but I’ve been interested in reading it for a long time and was pleased to see that it had been made available through NetGalley. It was worth the wait because it was every bit as much fun to read as I had thought and hoped it would be.

The novel opens with poet Richard Cadogan on his way to Oxford, where he hopes to find some literary inspiration. Arriving in the city just before midnight, he is surprised to find a shop with the door unlocked and goes inside to investigate. Inside he finds nothing but toys – ‘Meccano sets, engines, dolls and dolls’ houses, painted bricks, and lead soldiers’ – but venturing up the stairs at the back of the shop, he stumbles across the dead body of an elderly woman on the floor.

Before Cadogan can react, someone hits him on the head and he wakes up to find himself locked in a tiny room used for storing cleaning products. He manages to escape through a window and wastes no time in informing the police – but when they accompany him to the street the next morning, the toyshop is gone and in its place is a grocer’s which looks as though it has been there all the time. How could a shop possibly disappear overnight? Feeling that the police aren’t taking him seriously, Cadogan calls on his friend, Professor of English Language and Literature at Oxford University, Gervase Fen. Fen has some experience of solving mysteries (there are two previous novels in this series, which I haven’t read – The Case of the Gilded Fly and Holy Disorders) and he agrees to help Cadogan investigate.

With the main characters being a poet and an English professor, the dialogue between them is clever and witty, filled with literary allusions and wordplay. When they need a break from crime solving, they amuse themselves by playing games with titles such as Detestable Characters in Fiction. I’m sure we can all think of plenty of those!

“Got you!” said Fen triumphantly. “You miss your turn. Those vulgar little man-hunting minxes in Pride and Prejudice.”

At this exultant shout the muffled, rabbity man at the nearby table frowned, got unsteadily to his feet, and came over to them.

“Sir,” he said, interrupting Cadogan’s offering of Richard Feverel, “surely I did not hear you speaking disrespectfully of the immortal Jane?”

But the literary references are not always just for fun…they form an important part of the plot too. As a mystery involving wills, inheritances, unscrupulous lawyers and small spotted dogs begins to unfold, Fen and Cadogan discover that a knowledge of Edward Lear’s limericks will be useful in deciphering some of the clues. I loved this aspect of the novel; it was so imaginative and made up for the fact that the mystery itself is not a particularly strong one. The plot relies heavily on coincidences, improbabilities and things which are so far-fetched as to be ridiculous – but none of that really mattered to me. I was left with the impression that the author had as much fun writing this book as I had reading it.

Published in 1946, The Moving Toyshop is the third of Edmund Crispin’s Gervase Fen novels but it stands alone perfectly and I didn’t feel that I was at any disadvantage because of not having read the first two books. I’m sure I’ll be tempted to pick up one of the other books in the series soon!