The Case of the Gilded Fly by Edmund Crispin

There have been many reissues of golden age crime novels in recent years, and this is one I was particularly pleased to see.

You see, a couple of years ago I snatched up a selection of Edmund Crispin’s works in elderly green Penguin editions. Pretty books, but unfortunately when I opened the first in the series I discovered that it began at page 25.

The mystery of the missing pages is unsolved, but I have learned to open and check old books now before buying.

Now, back to the book.

I always find it difficult to write about mysteries. Difficult to say waht you want to say without giving too much away. So here’s what the cover tells you, and then I’ll expand a little with my reaction:

“Yseut Haskell, a pretty but spiteful young actress with a talent for destroying men’s lives, is found dead in a college room just metres from unconventional Oxford don Gervase Fen’s office. The victim is found wearing an unusual ring, a reproduction of a piece in the British Museum featuring a gold gilded fly but does this shed any light on her murder? As they delve deeper into Yseut’s unhappy life the police soon realise that anyone who knew her would have shot her, but can Fen discover who could have shot her? “The Case of the Gilded Fly” is the first Gervase Fen mystery and is the perfect introduction to this most idiosyncratic, eccentric and entertaining detective.”

Gervase Fen is an Oxford don. His subject is English literature and he has a keen interest in the art of detection.

His old friend, Sir Richard Freeman is Chief Constable of Oxford and he is fascinated by books and literature.

Two wonderfully drawn characters, giving a very interesting perspective on the events which will unfold.

Both are travelling back to Oxford by train.

The story opens with a passage describing the varying behaviour of passengers as a train approaches its destination. Maybe not essential to the plot but, because it is so perfectly observed, so engaging and so beautifully written, that it is the perfect appetizer.

All of the principals in the story that is to come are travelling to Oxford by train too. Each in turn is carefully described. a little contrived maybe, but it is so well done that you really can’t mind. And the relationships of the theatrical troupe at the centre of things are quite complex, so its useful to be able to refer back.

There is a death. A strange death. It couldn’t have been suicide, it couldn’t have been an accident, and it definitely happened, so it must be murder. There is no shortage of suspects – pretty much anybody could have had a motive for this particular killing. But just how the murderer did it is quite baffling.

That makes this mystery particularly compelling, and a wonderful cast of characters gives it life and depth.

Fen has the solution almost immediately, but he struggles with his conscience when it comes to identifying the murderer.

That solution, when it comes is extraordinary, but utterly logical and possible.

And so you have a perfect mystery, beautifully written and perfectly evoking time and place.

Gervase Fenn though is a character you are likely to either love or hate. He is erudite but has a tendency to be verbose; his conversations are peppered with literary illusions – some I picked up and some passed me by; and he has immense confidence in his own abilities.

For me it was love, and I look forward to meeting him again.

6 responses

  1. Ooooooh I have a Crispin book on the TBR and now I wish I was reading it right now. Am reading something a bit dirty and guilty at the moment… in a Vampire way, thats all I am saying.

  2. I picked up one of these Gervase Fenn books cheaply too – The Glimpses of the Moon. Haven’t read it yet but it sounds like I will enjoy it when I do.

  3. Staci – I think you’d like it.

    Simon – Each to their own – I’m spending some time with a 19th century pathologist!

    Cath – I think it’s one of those you will either love or hate and you should be able to tell fairly early on. I’ll be intereted to find out which way it goes.

  4. I have The Moving Toyshop by this author. I usually like reading books in order when it comes to mystery series, but I’ve heard that’s one of his best. This sounds good, too. And they have great covers, too. I especially like mysteries set in this period!

  5. Pingback: Saturday Review of Books: November 28, 2009 : Semicolon

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