Sunday 6 November 2011

Penguin no. 988: The Case of the Gilded Fly
by Edmund Crispin

Their relationship was further complicated by the fact that Fen had solved several cases in which the police had come to a dead end, while Sir Richard had published three books of literary criticism (on Shakespeare, Blake and Chaucer) which were regarded by the more enthusiastic weekly papers as entirely outmoding conventional academic criticism of the sort which Fen produced. It was, however, the status of each as an amateur which accounted for their remarkable success; if they had ever changed places, as a mischievous old Don in Fen's college once suggested, Fen would have found the routine police work as intolerable as Sir Richard the niggling niceties of textual criticism; there was a gracious and rather vague sweep about their hobbies which ignored such tedious details.

This was an old Penguin in a very sorry state: the pages had yellowed, the spine had crumbled, the cover was torn and marked, and the inside pages showed evidence of water damage and mould. It was found by my six year old daughter last week in a box of secondhand books at a local suburban fair, somewhere I wouldn't expect to come across an old Penguin, and a sign that she has learned to scan rows of old books for those special spines. And it was a title I was keen to find, as I had seen it listed as the only Crispin in the Guardian's 1000 books everyone must read, though in the comedy section rather than in crime. The listing had me intrigued - could this book be even better than The Moving Toyshop?

It was disappointing to find out that the answer was no. The Case of the Gilded Fly was interesting to read and held my attention to the end, but it is much more of a conventional Golden Age mystery novel, and as a result it is not nearly as original or entertaining as the later book. It lacks the exuberance and vitality, and while it is eccentric and absurd, it is so in a way which is not completely satisfying: the story is contrived, the characters lack dimension, and the solution to the murder is so unlikely that it is only barely plausible. This was Crispin's first attempt at writing a mystery novel, and he completed it in less than two weeks while still an undergraduate at Oxford University, which makes it an impressive achievement, and perhaps explains some of its flaws. I suspect the problem is that I read these books in the wrong order; this may have seemed a better novel if my expectations hadn't been raised by a superior work.

The story is set in Oxford, and concerns the members of a provincial repertory theatre as they prepare to stage the play Metromania, written by the well-known playwright Robert Warner, with his mistress Rachel West taking the lead role. The early chapters seem to be given over to the bickering of the cast, exploring their jealousies and rivalries, and their complex network of mismatched love interests, with Jean in love with Donald, who in turn is infatuated with Yseut, while Yseut works on luring Robert away from Rachel. It is Yseut who is the real problem. She is wealthy, alluring and promiscuous, and seems a murder victim made to order, as she relishes creating disharmony, and is universally disliked. When she is found dead in Donald's rooms, the police suspect suicide, though Fen avers immediately that it is a case of murder: not only does he believe that the apparent suicide has been staged, he is certain that he can name the murderer.

However, he chooses not to: he does not see in his ability to solve the case a compulsion to necessarily do so. He reflects on it as something of a dilemma: Yseut's murder has improved the lives of the people she knew, while identifying the murderer may at the very least impoverish the theatre, as the murderer is likely to face the death penalty. And you get the impression that Fen also seems to enjoy his private knowledge, and the accompanying feelings of superiority, as he taunts others with their inability to deduce what he suggests is obvious. His dilemma ceases to be academic when a second person is murdered, and he acts to inform the police, but there is an absence of any sense of culpability with the second death.

As intimated in the preceding paragraph, this is a Fen who is not quite as appealing as the one who appears in The Moving Toyshop. There are the same collection of characteristics but they are weighted differently, so that his energy is diverted into fidgeting rather than action, and rather than being playful, he is excessively forgetful, bullying and moody.

The title is perplexing: the gilded fly is a Shakespearean reference (King Lear) which takes concrete form here as a the pattern on a ring forced on to Yseut's hand after her death. And yet the murderer goes to great lengths and considerable risk to disguise the crime as a suicide, so why the ring? It helps alert Fen to the motive, but seems to achieve no tangible purpose for the murderer. The book is full of literary allusions, some obvious and some obscure, but this one seems an afterthought. And it only serves to highlight how parts of the story aren't entirely satisfactory.

By the same author:
Penguin no. 1315: The Moving Toyshop


  1. Very interesting review, and back-story, thank you!
    I have just finished a crime novel in which there is an in-passing similarithy with your "back-story": the detective has a hobby of going to flea-markets (or whatever the Norwegian equivalent of those is) but her very young son (I think supposed to be about 4 rather than 6) is reluctant to accompany her, until one day they find a complete set of lego. (Which, the book also mentioned, she put through the dishwasher and then they were as good as new - I would never have thought of that in an equivalent situation, but it seems obvious in retrospect - I won't be able to take advantage of the tip as my daughters are past the lego (et al) phase, long since).

    BTW the book is The Hand That Trembles by Kjell Eriksson.

  2. Thanks for the review - I have this sitting on my shelf to read. But I have just ordered 2 Nicholas Blake classic penguins from Abe books and am going to read these first. Looking forward to it.

  3. I agree with your assessment of GILDED FLY. I didn't enjoy it half as much as I did THE MOVING TOYSHOP - a much superior read. I probably read these two in the wrong order as well. :)

  4. I just finished reading this story today. I found the ancient paperback in a university library! I agree with you that this story was not as enjoyable as The Moving Toyshop, and that Fen was not as likeable a character. You are right about the ring- I was also puzzled by it so I got on the internet to see what others thought and then found this site. To me, though, what I find unpleasant is Fen's (and hence the author's) suggestion that being a promiscuous bitch makes your murder less of a problem to society than if the murderer, by being "fingered", was prevented from continuing to make their particular contribution to society. I found that distasteful. The murder victim was unikeable but she didn't deserve to die, yet that seemed to be the subtext. I was left wishing I hadn't read the book.

  5. I think all the Crispins are worth reading, but agree the first probably is the weakest.

    This is a remarkable blog, by the way, especially for those of us who love Penguins!

  6. I also think one thing to recall, perhaps, is that the author was quite a young man (at least from my perspective!) when he wrote Fly, 22 probably. Crispin was precocious to say the least. And his relations with women always seem to have remained on a romanticized level, even when he was older.

    I posting a series on him on my blog, after having read the biography of him.

    I'm still stunned by the pic of the Penguins in the upper right corner--good gracious! What a testament.



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