Thursday, 21 June 2001

Edmund Crispin: The Case of the Gilded Fly (1944)

Edition: Penguin, 1971
Review number: 845

One of Crispin's best Gervase Fen novels, The Case of the Gilded Fly is about murder in a repertory company in Oxford. Nowadays, the decline in theatregoing has killed off the provincial rep scene which used to be so important to the theatre community, and most British theatres outside London play home to sequences of touring productions of lightweight pieces sold to the public by a star name, usually a TV actor, rather than being the home of their own company.

One of the actors in the company, Yseut Haskell, is an unpleasant woman who not only believes herself more talented than she really is but enjoys such pastimes as taking other women's boyfriends. When she dies in a poorly faked suicide, not only are there many candidates for the murderer, but an amateur detective like Fen feels almost that the killer ought to be given a chance to escape.

The novel is full of the ironic touches which are Crispin's trademark; Fen referring to himself as "the only literary critic turned detective in fiction" is a typical example. The author also expends some effort in making Fen seem eccentric to the point of disagreeableness; he is not one of the cosier detectives in fiction.

Though not as inventive as The Moving Toyshop, the Oxford setting seems to have inspired Crispin here too. The puzzle is quite easy, but that doesn't stop the novel being entertaining. The title is partly a reference to a strange ring placed on Yseut's finger after her death, but also to King Lear (as the ring is meant to point out), which makes it a reference to Yseut's immorality.

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