I finished The Case of the Gilded Fly by Edmund Crispin last night. I have been reading it this week and at several points I was inclined to read sections aloud to my household, to the chagrin of my household. I did not love so many things about this novel to include the plot and the murder. However, there are a whole lot of things that I really did enjoy, which more than makes up for the things that I disliked. Before I begin, let me mention that “Edmund Crispin” is the penname for Englishman Robert Bruce Montgomery (1921 – 1978). He was a relatively prolific writer along with being an organ scholar and music composer. Allegedly he was friends with Philip Larkin and Kingsley Amis. The Case of the Gilded Fly is his first novel and stars his detective Gervase Fen. It was first published in 1944 when Crispin was himself an undergraduate at Oxford.
I have a feeling that this novel will divide contemporary readers. I can imagine how it would irritate and vex readers who are not as comfortable with madcap tongue-in-cheek satirical moments in their novels. It is also obvious that readers who are not very classically well-read (how’s your off-the-cuff Latin? your drop-of-a-dime Shakespeare? how familiar are you with the traditional Anglican Evensong?) will feel this novel is “obnoxious.” I had a blast with the novel – for the most part. I want to give this one four stars. Unfortunately, when I am very honest and I do not let myself get carried away by how amused I was, I can truly only grant it three stars.
So, the novel begins with a tedious introduction to each of the primary characters as they travel via train to Oxford. One long segment dedicated to each of the characters, one after another, is not the most engaging writing. I understand the importance of giving the reader the roster and just dumping the background of these characters all at once at the reader, but it is a slog to get through straight into the novel. However, being honest, I have to knock a star off (in a sense) because its not a very fun method.
Here is where the story really had no chance of being five stars – I really dislike theatre and plays and film and none of that is my scene. I have written about this before. Acting troupes and actors and the stage are probably my least favorite topics/themes etc. I want you to know this though: as I sit here and complain grouchily about the theatre, I literally have a copy of the complete works of Aristophanes tucked under my pillow in my bed. I am re-reading the stuff. Love The Frogs best of all. I read it at night, usually, and I just shove the book wherever because I do tend to read to exhaustion.
This brings me to the detective of the novel, Gervase Fen. I think he is fantastic. He is a forty-two year old literature professor. At the start of Chapter Thirteen, through the mind’s eye of the character Nigel Blake, Crispin gives us a well-colored, insightful, and developed description of his concept for the character. Readers who had been utterly annoyed by Fen thus far, hopefully can establish a somewhat kinder view of him after reading this? I am absolutely not going to lie, part of my appreciation for Fen is that he reminds me, in bits and shades, of a certain person…….
One of the segments that I read aloud was the story-in-a-story told by Wilkes. It is a ghost story and it seems to set the tone of the novel for an upcoming murder – but it, itself, has nothing to do with the murder. On one hand it is a strange inclusion, on the other, it does more to set the tone and style the setting than most authors are capable of doing directly. I also found the story itself to be creepy and imagined it quite clearly. A chilling little story, peppered with just the correct amount of wit. Its a beautifully written segment.
From the moment of Wilkes’ arrival, throughout the rest of this section, Fen’s reactions are amusing as heck. Familiar, too, I might add quietly. Fen cracks me up. I feel like readers will find him to be utterly rude and cantankerous, but they ought to understand he is not malicious whatsoever. Balancing his moments with his sensible and patient wife Dolly’s comments is a fine bit of writing by Crispin.
In chapter six, when the group has found the body and the police are on the scene, there is a section that had me laughing aloud and I even read the section to my, once again, long-suffering household. Sir Richard and Fen get absorbed by an examination of a certain prop – and Crispin writes it absolutely perfectly. Its beyond humorous and silly. I feel almost embarrassed because I feel like this is precisely the absurd moment that would occur in my world. I, and my associates, would huffily tell you that “accuracy matters” and would not feel that any such enquiry wastes time since it is all in service to the great heap of “Knowledge.”
The pacing of the novel is a bit off, though. I mean, like the train that it starts with, it seems to take a bit for the whole thing to get rolling. There are parts where it seems like nothing is going anywhere and everyone is lost and dazed. After all is said and done, nearly at the very end, there is a seemingly random theory about trains proposed by Nicholas that really seems out of place in the novel, though it does have amusing qualities. I do not really care for the characters. Nicholas seems the most realistic, though Nigel, I suppose, is the character readers are supposed to use for grounding, let’s say. Nigel is a former student of Fen’s. Nigel Blake is a character that I am sure has any number of referents to other bits external to this novel though, since I am not a Crispin scholar, I could not say what they are definitively. (Cp. Nigel Strangeways/Cecil Day-Lewis and also “Nigel Bathgate” of Marsh’s 1934 novel). The character Yseut Haskell is quite awful. Everyone thinks so.
I think that, for modern readers, one of the more challenging aspects of the novel is the frequent self-awareness of the novel. It sometimes critiques itself, refers to itself, mocks itself. Its subtle at times and other times its loud and brash. I think readers unused to this sort of writing will find it disconcerting and dislike not knowing on what terms to take the novel. Its easier for readers to accept a novel that is this or that, let us say, rather than one that chooses a style and remains there throughout. This novel is a detective novel, its a entertainment, its also a satire, and its a bit of an homage. If that is not enough, at times, it also is self-aware and purposely talks past the reader or shuts the reader out. Yes, I am sure these things can aggravate readers unprepared for them. Or readers who lack imagination.
An example of this is how throughout we are frequently told by all of the characters that Yseut is hideous and no one likes her whatsoever. The reader begins to, perhaps, accept this as reality and as a reasonable thing. Then, abruptly, late in the novel, there is an about-face, if you will, when the novel nearly rebukes the characters and readers for being so accepting of the harshness toward Yseut. A delicate reader might actually feel a twinge of guilt here; after all Yseut, with all of her public flaws, is still only a silly, young thing.
A murder mystery with some witty criticism and commentary that might pick fun at other detective novels (Fen mutters against the dull police investigation, the ridiculousness of Oxford zeitgeist, generally, and overall comments about the theatre.) A subtle farce, an amusing mystery. One of the things readers should watch for with Fen is that while he completely disassembles a seemingly pompous and snarky character (Nicholas), he also admits (later on) that Nicholas has an excellent intelligence. Almost as if Fen is harshest on those from whom he expects more.
Fen’s baleful worries about how he should act with regard to the fact that he can solve the murder that mostly everyone wants to believe is a suicide does bring up some interesting ethical questions. He bluntly demands characters to state their opinions on murder. He lets all the characters share their opinions, almost as if welcoming them to assert that they are comfortable with murder “in some cases” and then he will suddenly make a comment scolding them for such immorality. I feel some of this, too, must be taken in the context of that lovely year 1944 and the war-weary world.
Overall, this novel is a little messy – the resolution of the murder (the actual locked-room is a bit too difficult for me to really deal with). It has some flaws. It also has some of the best wit and humor that I have read in quite awhile. I think Fen is really priceless. This is definitely not a novel for all readers, whether readers want to hear that or not. I think, however, blaming the novel for educational deficiencies in the reader would be the incorrect way to go. Of course I am most certainly going to read more Crispin.