The Case of the Gilded Fly – Edmund Crispin

I’ve been a Crispin fan, in a subliminal sort of way, for years. I read several – probably picked up at library sales – and quietly reveled in the sharp wit and erudition. And then kind of forgot about them; Crispin has been on my List for a long time, but I’ve never bestirred myself to finish my collection. So I was tickled when this first book in the series – which I’d never picked up before – became the book-of-the-month at the revived Goodreads English Mysteries Group.

It’s been a long time since I’ve read a Gervase Fen mystery. And now I’m going to have to go back and read the others again, because I want to know if I still like them. I’m none too sure I really liked this one.

Great line: “Thank you, Miss Whitelegge. You’ve been involuntarily informative to a high degree.”

The sharp wit was very much in evidence – so sharp it drew blood in a few places. The erudition was very much there – the sort of careless sophistication that tosses off literary reference and foreign language commentary without explanation or translation, as a reminder that either general education was much more thorough in England in the first half of the 20th century … or that Edmund Crispin’s education was ever so much better. Or simply that mine wasn’t. This culminated in an extraordinarily frustrating reference-drop in the very last chapter; without spoilers, the provenance of a major component of the murder scene, left almost completely unexplained up to that point, is questioned, and Fen tosses off “I believe it was in Act IV, scene iv.” He mentions Shakespeare. Which play? You mean you don’t know? Tut tut. (A kind friend clued me in before I had to go Goodsearch: It’s King Lear.)

The tone of the book is almost painfully modern (or is it postmodern?). I’m fairly sure other writers were still tap dancing around extra-marital love affairs to some degree, unless of course I’m mentally whitewashing. Not Crispin. His characters make statements about their love lives and wait for audience reaction. The play at the heart of the book is terribly, terribly modern; the sexual mores are modern; the attitudes – well, you get the idea. If there had been any paintings discussed in the book they would have been either all sharp and ugly angles, or Pollocks, all filled with the deepest meaning or aggressively without meaning. At the same time, the deep roots of Oxford are well utilized, dim old rooms and history clinging in the stairwells and organ loft – but it’s very clear that the world is changing. This could be down to the War: blackout must be observed (and there is a really wonderful quick moment when an exception is made), and there are a few other glances toward the Blitz and the front, but on the whole I found it easy to forget this was supposed to be taking place some five years into Britain’s war effort.

Something I kept finding in looking up Edmund Crispin was the constant refrain of how much Gervase Fen owes to Lord Peter Wimsey. So I found this quote utterly remarkable:

Fen: “But don’t you see, whatever I do, I shall have it on my conscience till I reach the grave.”
Mrs. Fen: “Nonsense, Gervase, you’re exaggerating. Either way, you’ll have forgotten completely about it in three months. Anyway, a detective with a conscience is ludicrous. If you’re going to make all this fuss about it afterwards, you shouldn’t interfere in these things at all.”

Well. Well, well, well. So … was this a snark from Crispin directly at Lord Peter? It can’t but be so. This was originally published in 1944, after the bulk (if not all) of the Lord Peter material had been released. There’s no doubt Crispin knew Lord Peter – if nothing else, Fen bears a striking resemblance to what would result if Peter were stuck in a blender with Holmes and the archetypal absent-minded professor and gently pulsed. Interesting that the words are put into the mouth of Dolly Fen, who struck me as a kind of wonderful character. She is the only possible wife for the flighty, forgetful, distractible Fen, calm and steady and with a great sense of humor (“Shall I pull the trigger?” I loved that); it’s a little surreal that this helpmeet, whom I really liked, should administer a smack-down on one of my favorite fictional human beings.

Crispin had to have known Sayers – and he also knew John Dickson Carr:

“Oh my fur and whiskers! … Heaven grant Gideon Fell never becomes privy to my lunacy; I should never hear the end of it.” — Gervase Fen (whose name, I think perhaps, owes something to the latter gentleman.)

I loved the ghost story old Wilkes told – loved it to pieces, until the end, which didn’t quite make sense. A boy was killed by a group of men who hunted him down and beat him to death. Some four or five hundred years later a boy is chased by something unseen – all broken bones and teeth – and winds up beaten to death himself. But the elements didn’t seem to come together; was the ghost the hunted boy or the pack that hunted him, or was one part of the story and the other the one which did the murder? If it fit a little bit too perfectly into the setting (and suddenly a shot rang out!), it was forgivably theatrical.

There was a great deal to enjoy about The Gilded Fly. Was this a brilliantly written book? Absolutely. Was it a good murder mystery? Absolutely. Was the stuff in there about theatre and Oxford in 1944 wonderful? Absolutely. Did I love the self-aware reference to Gideon Fell (and, in a sort of way, to Lord Peter)? Absolutely. Was the snapshot of Oxford in wartime terrific? Absolutely. Was the entire bracketing sequence about the trains into Oxford funny and excellent? Absolutely. Was all of this completely undermined and overshadowed (both!) by the snarky Lord-I’m-so-much-cleverer-than-you-could-ever-dream-of-being attitude of the Great Detective and, apparently, his creator? Absolutely.

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2 Responses to The Case of the Gilded Fly – Edmund Crispin

  1. 282daniele says:

    Your opinion (Something I kept finding in looking up Edmund Crispin was the constant refrain of how much Gervase Fen owes to Lord Peter Wimsey. So I found this quote utterly remarkable:

    Fen: “But don’t you see, whatever I do, I shall have it on my conscience till I reach the grave.”
    Mrs. Fen: “Nonsense, Gervase, you’re exaggerating. Either way, you’ll have forgotten completely about it in three months. Anyway, a detective with a conscience is ludicrous. If you’re going to make all this fuss about it afterwards, you shouldn’t interfere in these things at all.” ) is interesting, very interesting. At which novel by Sayers with Nord Peter Wimsey did you find similar expression?
    I am writing an article about Fen and for a case I found your interesting post.
    Greetings.
    Pietro De Palma – Italy

  2. stewartry says:

    Hi – It wasn’t that there was something similar in a Lord Peter novel; what I meant was that Lord Peter very much is a “detective with a conscience”. In several of the novels Peter suffers over the aftermath of his hobby. He thoroughly enjoyed investigating his cases, but when it came time for the murderers to be brought to justice (to hang) it sent him into depressions knowing that he had discovered them and sent them to their deaths – and that he did it lightheartedly.

    So I wondered in this review whether this quote was an outright slap at Lord Peter.

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