The Case of the Gilded Fly (Edmund Crispin)

By Edmund Crispin

First published: UK, Gollancz, 1944; US, Lippincott, 1945, as Obsequies at Oxford

My review

Crispin - TCOT Gilded Fly.JPG
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

Crispin’s first novel, written while still an undergraduate, and full of youthful exuberance and cleverness.

It’s a witty, well-written and plotted mystery in the traditional manner.  It may seem juvenilia — a young writer trying to discover what he is doing, and, as such, lacks the originality of the later works; but the characters are more identifiable than in other Crispin novels, and the murderer (and all the suspects) is prominently in the foreground.

Professor Fen is introduced in this story — an absent-minded, eccentric, and intuitive man, with the same initials as Gideon Fell. Unlike Fell, he is arrogant and obnoxious; yet, like Fell, he is completely loveable.

The complicated alibi mechanism is similar to Carr’s The Peacock Feather Murders, and owes too much to chance – would two men have sat listening to Wagner with the windows open on an October evening during the black-out?  Both the method and the killer’s identity are well-hidden, especially the gimmick—on re-reading the book, I remembered the killer’s identity and motive (the motive is less important than the who and the how), but not the how.

Crispin is interested in maximalist plotting: he manages to interweave a cunning dying-message anecdote into the story, a simultaneous parody of Carr and M.R. James; and he has great joy in introducing Wilkes and his monkeys, who copulate instead of writing Shakespeare; and the bald parrot in the bar is funny.

Contemporary reviews

Times Literary Supplement (Maurice Willson Disher, 11th March 1944):


Anyone who wishes to know what “blood-curdling” means has but to read The Case of the Gilded Fly late at night in a lonely house.  There is in it a ghost story which creates the afraid-to-look-over-your-shoulder feeling exquisitely.  Mr. Crispin is a “new writer”.  His book, a merger between detective story and Oxford novel, is constantly amusing either because of his wit or else because of his excessive worldliness.  A professor of English language and literature is the sleuth, though most of the persons concerned belong to the theatre.  Some of them become jumbled, and though Jean and Jane sort themselves out, Nigel and Nicholas stay Siamese Twins to the end.  The story, readable in itself, excites keen interest in what Mr. Crispin will write next.


Manchester Guardian (Charles Marriott, 17th March 1944):

Cheerfulness prevails in The Case of the Gilded Fly, by Edmund Crispin, which is a detective story moving between a repertory theatre at Oxford and one of the colleges.  So many people had reasons for wishing Yseut Haskell dead that tracking the murderer becomes an exciting game.  The gilded fly, by the way, is a red herring.