The Case of The Gilded Fly by Edmund Crispin (1944)

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Gilded FlyThe Case of The Gilded Fly (1944) by Edmund Crispin
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Also published as: Obsequies at Oxford (US)

The novels of Edmund Crispin are not easy to review. Crispin continues the development of the sophisticated literary style of mystery that largely began with Dorothy Sayers, but takes this to a point that will leave many modern readers reaching for the reference shelf. At another level, Crispin also attempts to continue the device of a professorial detective investigating impossible locked room mysteries. Gervase Fen is essentially an Oxford edition of Gideon Fell, the main contribution of John Dickson Carr, though Crispin’s mysteries will never match the talent of that great master of the locked room genre.

This first novel by ‘Edmund Crispin’ was originally released in the US under the title, ‘Obsequies at Oxford’. Edmund Crispin was actually the pseudonym of Robert Bruce Montgomery (1921 – 1978), who is remembered for both his Gervase Fen mystery novels and his musical compositions. Born in Chesham Bois, Buckinghamshire, Montgomery graduated from St John’s College, Oxford, in 1943, with a BA in modern languages. He also spent two years as this school’s organ scholar and choirmaster – a position which plays a central role in ‘The Gilded Fly’. He first became known for his mysteries and was only later recognized as a composer of vocal and choral music, including ‘An Oxford Requiem’ (1951). He eventually turned to film work, writing the scores for many British comedies, including the famous ‘Carry On’ series. Montgomery also authored the screenplay and score of ‘Raising the Wind’ (1961).

‘The Gilded Fly’ begins with the assembly of a company of actors in Oxford, several of which are in some manner connected to the ancient halls of St. Christopher’s, a fictional Oxford college, where Crispin’s detective, Gervase Fen, is a professor of English literature and avid amateur detective. This odd combination of talents is nicely offset by the Chief Constable, Sir Richard Freeman, whose chief interest is English literature.

The novel is narrated by Nigel Blake, a former student of Gervase Fen and friend of several members of the theatrical cast. In each of the Fen mysteries, there is a different Watson – and here Nigel fills this critical role. Blake is on vacation from his job as a journalist and has come to Oxford to visit Fen and watch the single week of rehearsals that will lead to the debut of a new play. This new production is the work of an up and coming young playwright, Robert Warner, whose last play in the West End proved less than successful, leaving him to debut his latest effort, ‘Metromania’, in the provinces. He is accompanied by Rachel West, a famous London actress and his Jewish mistress, who is playing one of two central female roles. The other leading female role is to be played by Yseut Haskell, a mediocre actress who still harbours a grudge against Robert over a past affair. She also has a well deserved reputation for causing problems during the development of other productions. The wealthy Yseut is accompanied by her poor half-sister, Helen, also an actress and, in this instance, her understudy. The cast is filled out by various members of the local repertory theatre and their social circle, including Sheila McGaw, the local producer; Donald Fellowes, organ scholar at the college, who is enamoured with Yseut; Nicholas Barclay, a man about town who abandoned a promising career as a scholar; and Jeanne Whitelegge, an Oxford undergraduate in love with both Donald Fellowes and the glamour of theatrical life.

No spoiler alert is necessary, as it is quite obvious from the first chapters that Yseut is the intended victim. Yet, Crispin takes his time carefully establishing motive for all the central characters. The first third of the novel is almost entirely dedicated to drawing a clear picture of the complex relationships that eventually lead, not only to the death of Yseut, but also to the murder of another member of this small ensemble.

If you enjoy literary allusions, you will certainly not be disappointed by Crispin’s style. There are literally hundreds of references, most of which will be missethink of numerous additions) which notes some forty references ranging from Shakespeare to T S Eliot, Faust, and Horace. For those with an extensive literary background, this list is well worth perusing. (Go to Wiki Article). Chaucer is also quoted on several occasions, then one must add the odd and often seemingly irrelevant quotes which begin each chapter, drawn from such obscure English writers as Beroul – Dryden – Newman – Thomson – Campion – Marvell – Otway – Charles Churchill – Charles Williams – Crashaw – Ford – Maxwell – Webster – and you begin to get the idea!

Some of these allusions are quite evident, but even though I was once an English Lit major, I must admit the better portion of these references went right over my head. I will always be one of the first to appreciate the literary style of authors such as Dorothy Sayers, and several other Golden Age writers, who were determined to lift the Penny Dreadfuls into respectable works of literature. Unfortunately, Crispin quite simply carries this to an extreme, leaving me headed for reference works at every turn – or feeling like I may have missed something important. Mysteries should not have to play to the Lowest Common Denominator, there is plenty of room for articulate plots aimed at well educated readers. Unfortunately, Crispin fails to draw a reasonable line – leaving his readers scrambling to catch each literary nuance.

This sin would likely be granted a full pardon, if his mysteries were as well plotted as his literary allusions. Yseut is eventually shot to death in a room with closed windows and an honest worker in the passage who would have seen anyone enter the room during the period in question. In addition, someone has set the scene quite nicely, taking time to pose the corpse and wedge a copy of an ancient Egyptian ring on her swollen finger. The general idea of this staging was to suggest that Yseut’s death could only be a suicide, but this ‘Problem of the Egyptian Ring’ makes the entire situation fall a little flat. The ring is not only the Gilded Fly of the title, and a direct reference to King Lear, it is also apparently intended as a sign of the foolish dramatic instincts of the murderer. Why would the murderer bother with this ring? It entirely destroys the attempt to suggest suicide – with no real reason for this awkward intrusion. The ring is simply a senseless, irresistible, dramatic flourish – perhaps a symbol of the artistic temperament of the killer? Whatever the original intent, the ring is never fully explained and ultimately fails to serve any real purpose.

The police inspector, Cordery, and Sir Richard, both argue that suicide is the only possible answer, as no one, except Robert, who was in an adjoining lavatory, could have entered the room during the time in question. Furthermore, Robert could not have committed the crime, due to the fact that he left Fen, Nigel, and Sir Richard, only moments before the shot and had no time to stage this elaborate scene. Of course, Fen disagrees with this official conclusion. He attempts to argue that suicide is equally impossible, and from the first is quite certain he knows the identity of the murderer – and consistently claims that the motive of this murder is not primarily of a sexual nature.

Few tears are shed over the death of Yseut, which most consider a divine blessing. Her blatant use of sexual power has made her many enemies, and even her half-sister, who stands to inherit, seems to find it difficult to mourn her passing. In the end, of course, the show must go on. Fen coerces the police into waiting until after the opening of ‘Metromania’, before presenting his final denouement. The show proves to be a huge success and all are celebrating their theatrical achievement when the identity of the murderer is finally revealed. One brief clue to all readers – keep the room plan handy while reading this story! The rather good solution to the locked room mystery can only be fully appreciated if you have this plan firmly set in your mind! Some habitual mystery readers may uncover the identity of the murderer – it is not a truly great whodunnit. Instead, the real trick lies in divining the method, which very few will guess! Is this because it is so improbable? Perhaps, but improbable or not, the solution is not an entirely satisfying explanation of the locked-room illusionist’s art – but then again, we are seldom happy when we discover those simple tricks that make a staged illusion so tantalizingly mystifying!

What truly saves this mystery is the quality of the prose, the depth of the characters, and the detailed scenes all woven together by Crispin. One example, of many, is this short descriptive passage: “Outside St. John’s, the trees began to creak and whisper, and the drops rattled with dull monotony from their branches, while a few solitary beams of pale sunlight rested on an architrave of the Taylorian, glanced off southwards down the Cornmarket, and were rapidly engulfed somewhere in the precincts of Brasenose.” These are many of these excellently crafted prose passages, which add an artistic dimension that few mystery writers can equal. Also of special note is the rather long discussion of murder between Sheila McGaw and Nicholas Barclay in Chapter 9, page 121 of some ebook editions. It is a true delight which no mystery fan should be deprived of reading.

The character of Gervase Fen is another strength of the Crispin series. It is more fully developed in other stories, but is clearly set out by Nigel as he first approaches the murder scene: “Nigel reflected, as he turned into St. Christopher’s at twenty to six that evening, that there was something extraordinarily school-boyish about Gervase Fen. Cherubic, naive, volatile, and entirely delightful, he wandered the earth taking a genuine interest in things and people unfamiliar, while maintaining a proper sense of authority in connection with his own subject. On literature his comments were acute, penetrating, and extremely sophisticated; on any other topic he invariably pretended complete ignorance and an anxious willingness to be instructed, though it generally came out eventually that he knew more about it than his interlocutor, for his reading, in the forty-two years since his first appearance on this planet, had been systematic and enormous.”

Fen is often extremely rude and abrasive, with little patience and an arrogance that can be quite astounding, but this is only a superficial vision. True, Gervase Fen is the very definition of eccentric, but the character is saved by his good-hearted nature as well as his sharp wit and his intellectual brilliance – which is not above being mocked by his own pretentious play acting. Those of us who are fans of John Dickson Carr will appreciate the line where he notes, “Lord, Lord what a fool I’ve been! And yes – it fits – absolutely characteristic. Heaven grant Gideon Fell never becomes privy to my lunacy; I should never hear the end of it.” This form of irony is a common touch of the Crispin style, with Fen referring to himself as “the only literary critic turned detective in fiction.” It is this ingenuousness and odd form of humility, as well as his romantic nature, that keeps Fen from becoming simply an irritating source of brilliant deductions. He is always logical, yet quite unable to see the moral issue, and it is this inability to stand in the shoes of others, that is ultimately responsible for his one failure in this case. Fen delays the unmasking of the murderer, just long enough to allow the play to open on a high note, but this respect for art over life soon proves fatal. The wait creates the opportunity for a second murder, and even then Fen will not allow his plans to be disrupted. Still, we can only admire his Lord Peter like compulsions against unmasking the murderer of this rather unpleasant young woman. Some reviews use this as a pretext for viewing his attitude towards women as mysogonistic, though this is more of a simple reflection on an era when women were all too often viewed as sexual objects. I would actually argue that Crispin’s attitude, as expressed through Fen, especially with respect to Helen, actually demonstrates an acceptance and respect for the finer intellectual qualities of his female characters, than is common in other similar works of this period.

I also thoroughly enjoy another Carr touch adopted by Crispin, in his use of the spooky parallel ghost story. This clearly adds another dimension to the staged illusion of these seemingly impossible crimes, by offering the potential for a macabre ending. This device was quite common in the early days of the mystery genre, at least from the time of Edgar Allan Poe. It later became less popular, though it seems to be currently enjoying a revival as many independent authors experiment with various combinations of these two related genres.

How many stars? Knock off half a star for Crispin’s addiction to literary references, and another half for the ease of identifying the murderer and the improbability of the method. Though I am not partial to mysteries set in the world of theatre, whether the product of Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, Michael Innes, Ngaio Marsh – or many others – Crispin does manage to keep the story from being overwhelmed by the theatrical lights, by creating realistic characters and a less than glamorous backstage atmosphere. A high three stars would not be unfair – due to the faults mentioned above – but I will give it a very light four, primarily due to the complex character of Gervase Fen, and a prose style which has few rivals in the genre. A very young Crispin actually does quite a good job of extracting himself from a rather weak plot, and just barely saves this first novel from disaster, but better things would soon follow. Most reviewers tend to agree that the less famous ‘Moving Toyshop’ proved to be a far better mystery read.


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