In The Spotlight: Edmund Crispin’s The Case of the Gilded Fly

SpotlightHello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Under the name of Edmund Crispin, composer and writer Bruce Montgomery added a unique perspective and a memorable sleuth to the world of crime fiction. This feature would be less I think without including at least one of his novels, so let’s do that today. Let’s turn the spotlight on The Case of the Gilded Fly, the first of Crispin’s Gervase Fen novels.

The novel begins with the arrival in Oxford of several people, all connected in some way with playwright Robert Warner’s new play Metromania, which is scheduled to open at Oxford’s repertory theatre. There’s Warner himself, his mistress actress Rachel Ward, repertory producer Sheila McGaw, and Yseute Haskell and her half-sister Helen, who have parts in the play. There are also musician Donald Fellowes, who’s in love with Yseut Haskell; Nicholas Barclay, who’s an admirer of Fellowes’ work; journalist Nigel Blake, who admires Helen Haskell from afar;  and Jean Whitelegge, who is secretary to the Oxford University Theatre Club and is in love with Fellowes. All of these people soon get caught up in the odd hours, frantic preparations and, dare I say it, drama that always accompany a new production Some are hangers-on to the actual play while others of course are more directly involved.

A few nights later, Blake is visiting the rooms of his former mentor Gervase Fen, Professor of English Language and Literature. He, Fen, and Fen’s friend Chief Constable Sir Richard Freeman are in the middle of a discussion about an old legend they’ve just been told. All of a sudden the group hears a gunshot. At first they think it’s a group of reckless undergraduate students. But all too soon they discover that Yseute Haskell has been killed.

The police are inclined to call this a suicide. Yseute was alone when she died, and no-one followed her into the room where the death occurred. And other aspects of the evidence suggest that she wasn’t shot from any distance. So although this isn’t a literal ‘locked room’ case, it certainly seems to be an ‘impossible crime’ if it was indeed murder.

Fen has a real interest in detection and he’s had a friendly relationship with Sir Richard for quite some time. Besides, he’s more or less on the scene when the shooting occurs. So he gets involved in the investigation. Blake has two important reasons to also get involved in the case. For one thing, he still sees Fen as a mentor and wants to work with him. What’s more, Blake has had the chance to meet Helen Haskell and has fallen in love with her. When it comes out that she is her sister’s sole beneficiary and is set to inherit quite a lot, she becomes a suspect and Blake wants to see her cleared of suspicion.

And Helen is far from the only suspect. Yseute was selfish, malicious, and an egotist, so she wasn’t popular to begin with. There’s more, too. For instance, Jean Whitelegge resents Yseute’s influence over Donald Fellowes. Yseute was formerly involved with Robert Warner and just before her death, tried to re-ignite their relationship. Neither Warner nor Rachel Ward is happy about that. And then there’s Shelia McGaw, whose very unusual ring is found on the victim’s finger (hence the title of the novel). She could very easily have had a motive for murder. Fen, Sir Richard and the police slowly untangle the complicated web of relationships and in the end, they find out who killed Yseute Haskell and why.

In some ways, this is a very Golden Age sort of mystery. There’s the ‘impossible crime’ that isn’t so impossible, the ingénue suspected of murder (complete with the young man who wants her to be innocent), and the group of suspects, each of whom is hiding something. There are lies aplenty and in true Golden Age style, Fen uses little clues he notices and hears to find out the truth. There’s even a diagram of the building in which the murder occurs.

They murder itself makes sense although (and this is just my opinion, so feel free to differ if you do) there is something a little less believable about one of the characters that Crispin doesn’t t ell us until quite late in the novel. Still, Crispin more or less ‘plays fair’ with the reader. There is, as I say, a network of relationships and more than just three or four suspects. So the reader will want to pay close attention to what the characters say and what is observed.

This novel takes place in Oxford, and that setting comes through clearly throughout the novel:


‘Outside St. John’s, the trees betgan to creak and whisper…while a few solitary beams of pale sunlight rested on an architrave of the Tyalorian, glanced off southwards down the Cornmarket, and were rapidly engulfed somewhere in the precincts of Brasenose.’


There are several mentions too of students, dons, scouts and the routines of campus.

And yet, although the murder takes place at the university, this isn’t really an academic mystery. Really it’s a theatre mystery. Readers follow along during rehearsals, learning lines, cast parties, opening night, and all of the tension and exhilaration that go along with putting on a production. There are also many references to Shakespeare and other plays and playwrights.

And then there is the character of Gervase Fen himself. On the one hand, he is abrasive and rude (he refers to the new undergraduates for instance as ‘morons’ and tells one of the characters he’s being imbecilic.). He has little patience and is quite openly arrogant about his ability to solve this crime. He makes several less-than-tactful remarks about the police too. And he has his share of eccentricities. And yet, he is brilliant and shows real compassion. In fact, he insists on waiting until after the opening night performance of Metromania so that everyone can do the show they’ve worked so hard to prepare. There’s one scene too in which he arranges with an Eminent Actor to attend the performance so that Helen Haskell can be noticed and have her chance at a real career. Since the story is largely told from the point of view of Nigel Blake, we get an interesting perspective on Fen.

There’s quite a lot of wit in the novel too and a sly humour. For instance, here is a bit of what Fen says when it occurs to him that he’s missed something important:


‘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.’


John Dickson Carr fans will especially appreciate that reference to Carr’s most famous sleuth.

In The Case of the Gilded Fly, Crispin combines the theatre context and the Oxford academic setting to create a very Golden-Age sort of mystery with a dash of wit and featuring a unique sleuth. But what’s your view? Have you read The Case of the Gilded Fly? If you have, what elements do you see in it?



Coming Up On In The Spotlight

Monday 15 April/Tuesday 16 April – The Precipice – Virginia Duigan

Monday 22 April/Tuesday 23 April – The Diggers Rest Hotel – Geoffrey McGeachin

Monday 29 April/Tuesday 30 April – A is for Alibi – Sue Grafton


Filed under Edmund Crispin, The Case of the Gilded Fly

42 responses to “In The Spotlight: Edmund Crispin’s The Case of the Gilded Fly

  1. Crispin is one of my favorite authors, Margot – it’s a pity he wrote so few books overall. He has the ability to surprise and shock the reader – he will be providing a wonderful, funny scene, or engaging in a descriptive passage about Oxford or about the characters, and then, without warning, drop in something bloody, frightening, and/or incongruous – and perfectly timed. While most of the violence in his books is off-stage, not all of it remains there; these are not “cozies.” They’re wonderful, traditional mysteries. “The Case of the Gilded Fly” isn’t my favorite, but it’s quite good, especially for a first novel.

    • Les – You know, you make a well-taken point about the fact that The Gilded Fly was a first novel. It really is polished, although I think Fen develops as the series goes on, so that he is a better character later in the series. Still, even in this first one, you are so right that Crispin has a really effective blend of humour, shock, and so on. And yes, the series is not at all ‘cosy,’ but it is not in the least bit gratuitous. Purse Golden age in that sense.

  2. Wow, I hadn’t thought of the Gervase Fen series in years. I’ve read The Moving Toyshop and Love Lies Bleeding. Maybe I should pick up the series again! Thanks, Margot, for the trip down memory lane. 😉

    • Kathy – It is a great series and one of the things I like about it is the academic setting. One really feels one’s at Oxford, and although this particular novel isn’t an academic mystery, that doesn’t change the power of the setting. Oh, and I’m glad to have brought on a bit of nostalgia. 😉

  3. A very fair appraisal Margot – I love the Crispin novels of the 1940s (well, being Carr fan, how could I not), which i think got better as the went along probably after a very decent start. Also, I especially enjoy them for their humour, probably seen at its zaniest in delightful adventure, THE MOVING TOYSHOP. Apparently GILDED FLY was written while the author was still an undergraduate – hard not to be impressed really.

    • Sergio – Why, thank you. And yes, I’d heard that Crispin wrote this as an undergraduate. It is a really impressive novel for someone that young. And as you say, the series does get better, wittier and more compelling as it goes on. And in my opinion Fen gets to be a stronger and better-rounded character too.

  4. Margot: Sigh! He is an author I have often thought of reading but have not read any of his books. Another name to be added to the NBR (Need to Be Read) list.

  5. Margot, it’s worth noting that the Felony & Mayhem Press ( ) has republished all nine of Crispin’s novels in relatively inexpensive trade paperback editions. There are also two books of short stories by Crispin which, alas, have not been republished, as far as I can tell, but there are likely to be second-hand copies available as well.

  6. Skywatcher

    GILDED FLY is brilliant for an undergraduate novel. It tends not to be listed amongst his best works, but it does include all of the stuff that makes his novels such fun to read (the impossible crime; the M R James type ghost story; the breaking of the fourth wall; the comedy). It has such a joie de vivre that it is impossible not to be swept along with it. Crispin fills up the story with clever and funny ideas, to the extent that you can end up remembering these more than the crime itself (there is a wonderful comedy subplot about a group of academics who are trying to see whether a group of monkeys can really write the plays of Shakespeare by pure chance).

    One of the reason that Fen remains such a likeable character is that, in some respects, he is like a super-intelligent child. He has a child’s impatience and self-importance, but also a generosity of spirit. There is almost an element of ADHD in his character. He can never allow himself to be bored. In another book, he and a friend are locked up in a cupboard by the bad-guys, and instead of falling prey to despondency he thinks up another intellectual game for them to play. He thinks that everything can be fun, and he makes us think so, to..

    • Skywatcher – What a brilliant description of Fen. I couldn’t improve on it so I won’t even attempt it. Perhaps this isn’t the very best of Crispin’s novels, but it does contain the seeds of what would flourish later and on that count alone is worth reading. And honestly, Crispin at his weakest is still better (in my opinion anyway) than lots of people’s best.

  7. Not read any of his books Margot but must seek him out and put him on my TBR list. Fascinating plot and as I used to live near Oxford I will no doubt love the locations. This sounds terrific. Thanks for sharing.

    • Jane – Oh, lucky you that you use to live near Oxford. I think you would like this novel’s sense of place as well as the musical and theatre references. It’s witty too and although it’s hardly what you’d call ‘light reading,’ it’s also not bleak and burdensome. I hope that if you get the chance to read it, you’ll enjoy it.

  8. I’ve been thinking recently that I’d like to re-read Crispin – and I was thinking of Swan Song, but now you make me want to read this one! I think we were just agreeing the other day that a theatrical mystery is always welcome, and a bit of academia is a great addition! I am in Oxford quite often, so would particularly enjoy those details.

    • Moira – You know what’s funny? I had written up this post right before our conversation about theatre and academiz. Just great timing on that one. And I think you’d like this one although, as other people have mentioned, it’s not considered Crispin’s finest. Still… Oh, and some of the clothing description would be, if I may say so, really interesting topics for your own fine blog.

  9. I like how you make a point to say that the writer plays fair with the reader. I don’t like it when they leave out important details until the end and so makes it impossible for you to keep up with the detectives or solve along with them.

    • Clarissa – I don’t like that either. I don’t like it when the author tells the reader everything; what’s the point then of engaging oneself with the story? But I do like a fair shot at figuring out the puzzle.

  10. col

    Margot, another interesting piece, thanks, but this one is not for me I think.

    • Col – Thanks for the kind words. And you know, the great thing about books is that there’s such a wide variety of them. People are bound not to be drawn to every book out there.

  11. I have read one or two Crispin books in passing (they are not that easy to get hold of, even in libraries): ‘The Moving Toyshop’ (which apparently inspired the Doctor Who series) and ‘Love Lies Bleeding’. I love academic locations, and the theatrical elements can only add to the fun.

    • Marina Sofia – I’m very glad that the series is being brought out again as Les mentions. I’m hoping that will mean that more of the books will be more easily available. You’re right that the combination of academia and theatre in this novel is just terrific.

  12. I need to get hold of more Crispin books, for sure! Read a couple long ago. Thanks for the reminder, Margot.

  13. I see you have Sue Grafton A is for Alibi coming up, just finished her omnibus including A,B, C. Cannot wait for your piece.

    • Jane – I’m excited for that spotlight myself. Grafton is one of those really consistent, never-let-you-down authors and it’s about time I featured her Kinsey Millhone in my spotlight series.

  14. kathy d.

    I tried to read The Moving Toyshop, the library’s copy, but the print was too small for me at this point. So, if I see a copy of this one in a larger font, I’ll read it.

    • Kathy – Font can really be an issue when it comes to reading. Some of the older editions of books really do have very small font – not a problem I see as much in the more modern novels I read. Or perhaps it’s just the books I read.

  15. I haven’t read this but I see I have it on my shelf. One for the TBR pile!

  16. Fantastic stuff. At Interesting Literature we have a whole set of Edmund Crispin novels that we hope to work through over the summer months; we’ve already read The Moving Toyshop, but plan to read Gilded Fly next. Thanks for the insightful post!

  17. Pingback: Edmund Crispin: The Case of the Gilded Fly | Past Offences

  18. Pingback: EDMUND CRISPIN. The Case of the Gilded Fly (1944). | Only Detect

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