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?

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!