The Case of the Gilded Fly, the first novel by Edmund Crispin, written in 1944, introduces Gervase Fen, an Oxford don of English language and literature who explains that his understanding of literature makes him more qualified than the average detective to solve cases because he knows logic and people. One night in October 1940, a group of people descend upon Oxford to put on a play performed by a repertoire theater, written by Robert Warner. In addition to the playwright and actors, the train contains a few others, in particular journalist Nigel Blake, from whose third person perspective the book is written. Nigel learns that the repertoire cast contains a pair of half-sisters, the delightful Helen Haskell, with whom Nigel immediately falls in love, and the odious and wildly promiscuous Yseut Haskell, former mistress to Warner. The group all gets invited to a party by an army captain on leave later that week. At this party, everyone drinks heavily, and Yseut, drunk, threatens Warner with the revolver belonging to the host.
But when the murder takes place, it isn’t Warner who dies, but Yseut. Nigel, Warner, and Fen are spending time together in the Oxford housing when they hear a shot. Racing to the room where the shot appears to come from, they see Yseut lying dead in the room of the organist who has been in love with her, Donald Fellowes, the gun lying next to her. On her finger has been placed an Egyptian ring with a fly stuck inside it. The police are ready to declare the death a suicide, but Fen, who already has a track record with helping the police, disagrees, stating immediately that the answer is obvious to him. But then he refuses to tell anyone the solution.
The Case of the Gilded Fly is a book full of literary allusions, especially to Shakespeare, from whom the title is taken: “the small gilded fly does lecher in my sight” (King Lear IV:6:110). This seems particularly suitable to describe Yseut, who has slept around a lot and even once complained that another actress doesn’t exude the proper level of sexuality. In addition to King Lear, the book contains references to Hamlet, Cymbeline, Measure for Measure, Troilus and Cressida, and Coriolanus, among others. Besides Shakespeare, we see references to Greek mythology, Voltaire, and the 17th century playwright John Webster.
This book has some good points of interest, but it didn’t grasp me the way I had hoped it would. The book begins strong, but once the murder happened, I didn’t feel that much detection took place, especially visible to the readers. Fen announces from the start that he knows that it was not suicide and that he knows the identity of the murderer, so he doesn’t really do much detection, while the police don’t investigate at all because they have written off the case as a suicide.
The most vivid character in The Case of the Gilded Fly is Yseut, and once she dies, the book loses some of its energy. I didn’t connect to any of the other characters very much, as they just seemed to fall somewhat flat.
Philip Bird performs the audio edition of this book. I enjoyed his narration, as he sounds like he belongs in Oxford and has a voice that harkens back to the older era in which the book was written and set. Bird serves as an effective performer in bringing the book to life. I suspect that I would find the book less enjoyable if I hadn’t listened to it with Bird!
The Case of the Gilded Fly has a strange solution that seems fantastic. No one entered the room after Yseut went in, so we already know the solution will be curious, and it gets strange. The book was okay, but it really didn’t draw me in much either. I give it three stars.
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