Yes, I know. It's pushing things to describe Edmund Crispin's The Case of the Gilded Fly as a Forgotten Book. But the Harper Collins Detective Story Club has reissued the novel, and it's good to see it featuring in this eclectic and attractively presented collection. And this edition benefits from an introduction by Doug Greene, who knows more about classic crime than almost anyone I know.
I first came across this novel as a teenager. I'd read and enjoyed The Moving Toyshop, so I borrowed this one from the public library next. Now at the age of 13 or so, I had never been to Oxford, and certainly no concept of what it was like - quite a disadvantage when reading Crispin. This story, like The Moving Toyshop, features an apparent impossibility, but is an apprentice work - Crispin wrote it when he was still an undergraduate at St John's College. And the first chapter introduces a large cast of characters, wittily yet a little clumsily. I have to say that the young Martin Edwards was a bit disappointed, and in fact I didn't finish it. Nor did I return to Crispin until some years had passed.
Now, of course, I appreciate Crispin much more than I did then. His wit and cleverness are strengths, though I think that in this novel, the intelligence is rather self-conscious, a sign of the author's inexperience. My adolescent judgement of the book was too harsh, And now that I love Oxford as Crispin did, I empathise with his portrayal of the city and its eccentric characters.
Especially for such a very young author, this is a well-contrived mystery, although it's still, in my opinion, clearly inferior to books such as The Moving Toyshop and Buried for Pleasure. Yseut, the victim, is suitably unpleasant, but Fen is also, as Crispin seems to acknowledge, pretty irritating too - especially when he makes clear that he knows whodunit early on, but declines to tell. I know Poirot did this time and again, but Fen doesn't carry it off quite as well, and the killer strikes again before the final unmasking.. A critic in The Indpendent even said in a review that he wished Fen, rather than Yseut, had been the victim! As for the murder motive, I'm afraid it' emerges from nowhere, really: not exactly fair play. For a Golden Age fan, Crispin is always worth reading, and there's a lot of pleasure to be had here from his humour and his evocation of Oxford. But for all its merits, it is an apprentice work..
This was the second Crispin novel I read, the first one being 'Love Lies Bleeding'. I can't quite remember much about the story or even the puzzle, but I confess I loved the humour, and the presentation of Gervase Fen. :D The Oxford setting is great too; incidentally, I just finished my first Morse novel, which was also set in Oxford.
I reread TCOTGF recently, and I'd agree that it's enjoyable but not his best work. What's more, there is a massive flaw in the solution of the impossible situation, which I can't discuss here because of spoilers. My personal favourite of his is Buried for Pleasure, followed closely by Love Lies Bleeding.
clearly inferior to books such as The Moving Toyshop and Buried for Pleasure.
Buried for Pleasure is a particular favourite of mine. The only Fen mystery that has disappointed me is The Long Divorce which (to me) seemed just a tiny bit mean-spirited.
I love this book because of the inserted ghost story, which is M. R. James (scholars and holy places) via Dickson Carr. The similar episodes in Crispin's Holy Disorders, Carr's Hag's Nook and Dickson's Plague Court Murders may have only tangential relation to the main plot but are all marvellously entertaining. Of course, the inserted ghost story has a respectable literary history: the Tales of the Bagman from Pickwick and Tod Lapraik from Catriona come to mind. I wonder if there are enough stand alone ghost stories from detetctive novels to make an anthology?
I was not impressed either when I read it, two decades ago and it took me years to give Crispin another try - and become a fan. The book was chosen by French publisher Le Masque to introduce Crispin to French readers and it was not a tremenduous success as only one other book of his, 'Frequent Hearses' crossed the pond after that. 'The Moving Toyshop' which seems to be everyone's favorite Crispin would have been a much better choice but then who knows what's going on inside publishers's heads...
My own favorites include two of Jonathan O's - Buried for Pleasure and Love Lies Bleeding but also The Long Divorce, and Glimpses of the Moon, his last full-length book which was published 26 years after its predecessor. It didn't receive universal acclaim but has some splendidly eccentric characters - who but Crispin could give a central role to a malignant electricity pylon nicknamed 'The Pisser'?
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