It’s curtains

Vintage photograph of St John’s College, Oxford.

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.

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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

20 thoughts on “It’s curtains

  1. I started this, looking for some distracting entertainment … but the characters did not engage me enough (Fen doesn’t really appear in the beginning, so maybe I should give him a chance to step in). With mysteries, if the characters are nearly all unlikeable and not even in a fun way, then I find it tough going. However, it could be just my mood at the moment. Glad you found it more worthwhile – your review was interesting anyway!

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    1. I first read this is 2012 and, like you, Lory, found it hard to engage with any of the characters (except the journalist Nigel, an ex-student of Fen’s and, I suppose, the fictional stand-in for the author).

      But with hindsight, a bit of research, and his more popular The Moving Toyshop under my belt I enjoyed this reread rather more. The fact that the author (whose centenary falls next year) was still an undergraduate when he wrote this excuses quite a lot for me: making an exhibition of his literary knowledge for one thing, his cynicism over his characters, and — even the late appearance of his amateur detective.

      I couldn’t for the life of me remember whodunit or how but closer attention to the details this time made me divine the solution before the bit reveal, even though the murders themselves still beggared belief. Apologies for going on at length about this — I’ve been trying to explain, rather unsuccessfully, my mix of admiration and disappointment of this.

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      1. Quite all right, as I said I think I enjoyed your review more than the book itself … that doesn’t mean I might not like it myself when I have a go at the right time.

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  2. Oddly enough I found an old unread copy of Buried for Pleasure a few months back. I was greatly amused at the the author’s application of very unusual and obscure words throughout the text. Much mischief at work.

    I found that very appealing. Some writers of his period took it upon themselves to educate their readers. Part of the contemporary move in education to broaden education for all? Current events always influence other sectors of society.

    In this book G Fen having become the authority on Langland’s Piers Plowman, needed a break from academe, so applied to be MP for a small town.

    It all goes horribly wrong..

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    1. I know that I shall need to pay a return visit to Gervase Fen some time, Michael, and I shall bear this title in mind, thanks — especially for his prolixity with words verging on logorrhea and the ‘horribly wrong’ tendency!

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            1. I enjoy the odd crime fiction or thriller but could never enjoy a diet of it as some do. I do however see a distinction between on the one hand classic detective novels which, despite some psychological apparatus, are more in the nature of a cryptic crossword puzzle; and, on the other hand action thrillers where there’s a lot of seemingly gratuitous violence verging on the sociopathic, a class I tend to steer clear of as much as I would most true crime.

              (I read an account of the Zodiac killings in California which had been recommended to me, admittedly a deeply absorbing narrative but one I felt faintly sick and sullied afterwards, as though I’d been tainted by showing interest in it — and ditto the film of it which I watched subsequently.)

              It’s the in-between novels that would more interest me, ones that have profounder things to say about the human condition as well as contemplating how omnipresent death affects how we think, behave and love.

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  3. Lovely review, and you remind me how much I adore Fen – the books are uneven, I know, but when he’s on form Crispin/Mongtgomery is just splendid. But I’m a reader who loves the in-jokes and the breaking of the fourth wall etc – plus I love the Oxford setting too, so I think I’m the ideal audience for this! 😀

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    1. Cheers, Kaggsy, I agree the Fen stories are Crispin having fun, and the Oxford setting is just the ideal environment for in-jokes and literary repartee! And, as one who doesn’t know the city that well, having a map to hand doesn’t do any harm either. 🙂

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  4. I read this a few years ago and remember liking it but finding it much less entertaining than The Moving Toyshop. I do want to read more of the Gervase Fen series but I suspect none of the other books will match up to The Moving Toyshop either. Anyway, I enjoyed reading your review!

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    1. It was his first GF novel so I expect the then still to graduate student was just getting into his stride! But amazing that Fen springs fully-formed, like Athena from Zeus’ head, even if the character was based on someone in real life. I was a bit prolix in my review I’m afraid but there was so much material to stimulate the old grey matter!

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  5. My goodness you do shed a great deal of light on many aspects of Crispin’s writing. At the time when I first read his books I loved anything set in Oxford and gobbled them down. When things open up here again might be time to visit Book Heaven and see whst Crispin titles they gave.

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    1. The Moving Toyshop is generally rated as the pinnacle of the series though I found it even more contrived (that is, an elaborate joke) than this one! But I’m almost certain to pick up another Fen book or two, there’s a collection of short stories featuring the doyen of detection which I rather fancy. But I must make sure I’ve got an Oxford Street map to hand to orientate myself…

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  6. I’ve only read one of the Gervase Fen novels and enjoyed the breaking of the fourth wall, but it might get a bit wearing if the author does it repeatedly. I’ve often wondered if fictional attitudes to the morality of murder reflected reality – even Poirot, who famously disapproves of murder, has been known to show far more sympathy for the murderer than the victim on occasion. But then the Golden Age authors knew that murder is far more entertaining when the victim is thoroughly unpleasant and deserves all s/he gets! Something I wish contemporary crime writers would remember before they make us all wallow in perpetual grief for 400 pages… 😉

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    1. Ooh, that was a cry from the heart! And I think I know from your blog what you’re referring to…

      I think this repeated fourth wall breaching does get wearing, not just in this novel but in the one other I’ve read, but it’s entertaining to see how he varies it and uses it as one leitmotif among many.

      As for the sympathy for certain perpetrators, I guess that reflects the Good vs Evil trope which runs through many genres; sooner or later the villain gets their just desserts, except in detective fiction that tends to happen near the beginning if the victim happens to be a bad ‘un…

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    1. Maybe it’s me, Karen, trying to find profundities and parallels in anything I read and choose to review but there certainly were a lot of ideas packed into these pages, and I haven’t even tried to chase up all the literary references Crispin casually throws in at every opportunity (mainly because I have little familiarity with Jacobean and Restoration drama). During a lot of this I just went with the flow… 😁

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