The Case of the Gilded Fly
by Edmund Crispin;
A Gervase Fen Mystery.
Vintage 2009 (1944)
“I pardon that man’s life. What was thy cause? Adultery?
Thou shalt not die: die for adultery! No:
The wren goes to ‘t, and the small gilded fly
Does lecher in my sight.
Let copulation thrive…”
— ‘King Lear’, Act IV, Scene 6
In this crime mystery abounding in literary references the reader’s attention is of course arrested by the titular gilded fly, a clear reference (as the closing chapter confirms) to Lear’s conversation with the blinded Duke of Gloucester. Superficially the Gilded Fly is a detail on a finger ring found on the first victim, but the author knew — as did Shakespeare — that the iridescent insect has a reputation for wantonness. (In folklore the diminutive wren, incidentally, also became King of the Birds through trickery).
While the ring itself turns out to be a red herring the theme of extramarital sex runs throughout the plot, especially when we are asked to consider motive, means and opportunity. But, as suits a novel from the Golden Age of crime fiction, it is the tricky nature of the storytelling which elicits appreciation more than any attempt at realism, for this is as preposterous a tale of coincidence and opportunism as any ghost story or Jacobean tragedy.
The trigger for events is easily outlined. It is October 1940 and a number of individuals are travelling from London to Oxford (“the City of Screaming Choirs”) to rehearse and then perform a play called Metromania at an Oxford theatre. However, during the week of rehearsals a particularly obnoxious actor, Yseut Haskell, is shot and killed in an undergraduate’s rooms in St Christopher’s College. Coincidentally this is below the rooms occupied by Professor of English Gervase Fen — who just happens to be a successful amateur sleuth — and so he is drawn into the investigation. It would be a disservice to readers to recount the progress of the plot, or indeed to detail all the characters and their possible complicity. Instead I shall focus on a handful of themes — literature and drama, structure and the fourth wall, music and humour, manners and morals — and attempt to indicate how Edmund Crispin interweaves them all in this fiction.
Let me start with structure and how it appears to be put together. Bruce Montgomery — Crispin was the author’s nom de plume — graduated from Oxford with a degree in Modern Languages, and it’s therefore unsurprising that this novel includes allusions to Latin phrases and to European works and belles-lettres as well as to English literature: chapter headings feature literary quotes and Arthurian references. Here too you may find opportunities to widen your vocabulary, with terms like aposiopesis and apolaustic casually thrown into conversations.
Montgomery was also a musician and later a composer of film scores, so The Case of the Gilded Fly is suffused with musical thinking, from references to musical works, church services and organ registrations, to thematic recurrences in the plot and the novel’s overall structure.
In theatres with proscenium arches curtains rising and falling act as metaphorical prologue and epilogue, and this thriller explicitly opens and closes with chapters headed thus. We begin and end with railway journeys: complaints about the slowness and unreliability of trains — a deliberate contrast with Italy’s efficient rail system, perhaps — warn us that details of the crimes will be offered piecemeal and at length. With the timeframe running from the 11th to the 26th October the author takes us on a fortnight’s leisurely stroll through Oxford’s streets, along cycle paths, from theatre to pub, hotel to college.
The fourth wall is a conceit well known in the theatre, an invisible barrier between the company and the audience, with the illusory veil shockingly ruptured should an actor address the audience directly. Jacobean drama happily broke the convention of the fourth wall, and Crispin does it frequently here and elsewhere, deliberately and for comic effect. Gervase Fen alludes to his part in asides such as this:
“In fact I’m the only literary critic turned detective in the whole of fiction.”
The company considered this claim for a moment in silence.
and again here, talking about irrelevant ‘stuff’, also known as red herrings:
“That’s all very well in a detective novel, where it has to be put in to camouflage the significant things — though I must say I think some more entertaining form of camouflage might be devised —“
Sir Richard roused himself acerbly. “Really, Gervase: if there’s anything I profoundly dislike, it is the sort of detective story in which one of the characters propounds views on how detective stories should be written…”
This kind of knowing wink to the reader may either amuse or irritate; it’s therefore either good news or bad that the succeeding Gervase Fen novels don’t shrink from repeating this trick. And I haven’t even yet mentioned the inclusion of a pianist called Bruce improvising jazz in the theatre’s orchestra pit during a lull in rehearsals. Thus it is that literature, music and drama provide both wattle and daub for the novel’s superstructure.
And now we come finally to manners and morals. At a distance of some eight decades some things change but others don’t. In the middle of any crisis — then it was the Second World War — people do try to keep some semblance of normality despite inconveniences like blackout, guilty urges to join the war effort or an invisible enemy which may strike at any moment. Crimes, for instance, still happen and perpetrators still need to be identified and apprehended. But other aspects seem increasingly alien to us now: would people seriously discuss that a murder might be justifiable if the victim happens to be an unpleasant sort, even if in wartime a blind eye might be turned towards inconvenient situations? And although the author himself confessed to enjoying excessive smoking did we all really condone the permanent unhealthy fug which pervaded our every public space until relatively recently, a habit which we’re reminded of on every other page of this mystery?
To conclude, Crispin has fashioned an ingenious crime fiction in which he constantly challenges the reader to suspend disbelief while throwing every obstacle in one’s path. Trite chapter endings (“And within the week that followed three of these eleven died by violence,” for example) provide bathetic wouldbe cliffhanger moments, yet such incidents could be multiplied: what for instance are we to make of a chain that has both Nicholas and Jean fancying Donald, who’s obsessed with Yseut, who chases Robert, who wants to marry Rachel — is not the author having a joke at our expense?
And yet death is no laughing matter. As the aged academic Wilkes reminded his hearers, “Killing always engenders more killing, that is to say the debit account is never wiped out.” As we discover, when the safety curtain comes down at the end of a play it may well mean curtains for somebody or other.
A contribution towards Readers Imbibing Peril XV. #RIPXV‘s categories include
Mystery — Suspense — Thriller — Dark — Fantasy — Gothic — Horror — Supernatural