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