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The 1944 Club: ‘The Case of the Gilded Fly’ by Edmund Crispin ****

Hurrah!  I have finally been organised enough to be able to participate in one of the wonderful yearly clubs run by Simon and Karen.  The year which they have chosen for bloggers to read books from this week is 1944, and I was so pleased that I could read and review the first book in the Gervase Fen series, The Case of the Gilded Fly by Edmund Crispin, for the occasion.

9780099542131The Guardian praise Edmund Crispin’s series of crime novels as ‘a ludicrous literary farce’, and The Times call the author ‘one of the last exponents of the classical English detective story… elegant, literate, and funny.’  In this, the first novel in the series, a ‘pretty but spiteful young actress’ named Yseut Haskell, who has a ‘talent for destroying men’s lives’, is discovered dead in a University room ‘just metres from unconventional Oxford don Gervase Fen’s office.’  In rather an amusing aside, the blurb says: ‘Anyone who knew her would have shot her, but can Fen discover who could have shot her?’

The Case of the Gilded Fly begins in early 1940, in a typically British manner: ‘To the unwary traveller, Didcot signifies the imminence of his arrival at Oxford; to the more experienced, another half-hour at least of frustration.’  On such a railway journey is where we first meet English Language and Literature Professor Fen – ‘And as his only distraction was one of his own books, on the minor satirists of the eighteenth century, which he was conscientiously re-reading in order to recall what were his opinions of these persons, he became in the later stages of the journey quite profoundly unhappy’ – as well as the other protagonists.  This cast of characters is rather a diverse one.  After brief sketches of their personalities and professions, Crispin discusses them for the first time as a group: ‘By Thursday, 11 October, they were all in Oxford.  And within the week that followed three of those eleven died by violence.’

Crispin controls his writing and characters wonderfully.  The opening description of Yseut gives her character a complexity, and sets the reader – like her acquaintances – against her rather quickly.  Crispin writes: ‘To a considerable extent we are all of necessity preoccupied with ourselves, but with her the preoccupation was exclusive, and largely of a sexual nature into the bargain.  She was still young – twenty-five or so – with full breasts and hips a little crudely emphasized by the clothes she wore, and a head of magnificent and much cared-for red hair.  There, however – at least as far as the majority of people were concerned – her claims to attractiveness ended.  Her features, pretty enough in a conventional way, bore little hints of the character within – a trifle of selfishness, a trifle of conceit; her conversation was intellectually pretentious and empty; her attitude to the other sex was too outspokenly come-hither to please more than a very few of them, and her attitude to her own malicious and spiteful.’

The Case of the Gilded Fly is both intelligently written and highly immersive.  Whilst not my favourite in the Gervase Fen series – that accolade has to be given to the magnificent The Moving Toyshop – The Case of the Gilded Fly, whilst stylistically different in some ways, serves as a marvellous introduction to the series.  Crispin sets it up so that everyone has a grievance against Yseut, and the reader is consequently left guessing who could have perpetrated the crime, when all have a motive.

The sense of place here has been well captured, too, as well as the early Second World War time period in which it is set.  Crispin notes that the college admissions at Oxford University have been greatly affected, with many students going off to fight.  The blackout conditions are also in place when Yseut is murdered, which does not help matters; her death is first ruled as a suicide, until Fen and an Inspector from the local police force probe more deeply and discover several clues.  The novel does not throw up as many red herrings as I had come to expect from the later books in the series; it is more of a measured and meditative novel.  I did correctly guess one of the elements, but found it incredibly well pieced together nonetheless.

Purchase from The Book Depository

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Getting Into Crime Fiction

Crime fiction – particularly of the contemporary period – was a genre which I oddly found myself steering away from in my teenage years, but of late, I have been veering more and more toward it.  I love a good mystery, and whilst I have always been a fan of cosy crime, I am now drawn to more recent releases.  For those of you who don’t classify crime fiction as within your favourite literary genres, I thought it would be a good idea to point out five crime books which I would highly recommend, giving you a springboard from which to dive into some exciting books.

  1. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie (Flavia de Luce series #1) by Alan Bradley 9780752883212
    ‘Take one precocious eleven-year-old girl called Flavia. Add an ancient country house somewhere in England in 1950. Then sprinkle with murder, mystery and dark family secrets…For very nearly eleven-year-old Flavia de Luce, the discovery of a dead snipe on the doorstep of Buckshaw, the crumbling de Luce country seat, was a marvellous mystery – especially since this particular snipe had a rather rare stamp neatly impaled on its beak. Even more astonishing was the effect of the dead bird on her stamp-collector father, who appeared to be genuinely frightened. Soon Flavia discovers something even more shocking in the cucumber patch, and it’s clear that the snipe was a bird of very ill omen indeed. As the police descend on Buckshaw, Flavia decides it is up to her to piece together the clues and solve the puzzle. Who was the man she heard her father arguing with? What was the snipe doing in England at all? Who or what is the Ulster Avenger? And, most peculiar of all, who took a slice of Mrs Mullet’s unspeakable custard pie that had been cooling by the window…?’
  2. The Secret Adversary (Tommy and Tuppence, #1) by Agatha Christie
    ‘Tommy and Tuppence, two young people short of money and restless for excitement, embark on a daring business scheme – Young Adventurers Ltd. Their advertisement says they are ‘willing to do anything, go anywhere’. But their first assignment, for the sinister Mr Whittington, plunges them into more danger than they ever imagined…’
  3. 9780008124120The Moving Toyshop (Gervase Fen Mysteries) by Edmund Crispin
    ‘As inventive as Agatha Christie, as hilarious as P.G. Wodehouse – discover the delightful detective stories of Edmund Crispin. Crime fiction at its quirkiest and best. Richard Cadogan, poet and would-be bon vivant, arrives for what he thinks will be a relaxing holiday in the city of dreaming spires. Late one night, however, he discovers the dead body of an elderly woman lying in a toyshop and is coshed on the head. When he comes to, he finds that the toyshop has disappeared and been replaced with a grocery store. The police are understandably skeptical of this tale but Richard’s former schoolmate, Gervase Fen (Oxford professor and amateur detective), knows that truth is stranger than fiction (in fiction, at least). Soon the intrepid duo are careening around town in hot pursuit of clues but just when they think they understand what has happened, the disappearing-toyshop mystery takes a sharp turn…Erudite, eccentric and entirely delightful – Before Morse, Oxford’s murders were solved by Gervase Fen, the most unpredictable detective in classic crime fiction.’
  4. In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware
    ‘Nora hasn’t seen Clare for ten years. Not since the day Nora walked out of her old life and never looked back. Until, out of the blue, an invitation to Clare’s hen party arrives. A weekend in a remote cottage – the perfect opportunity for Nora to reconnect with her best friend, to put the past behind her. But something goes wrong. Very wrong. And as secrets and lies unravel, out in the dark, dark wood the past will finally catch up with Nora.’
  5. Case Histories (Jackson Brodie, #1) by Kate Atkinson 9780552772433
    ‘Cambridge is sweltering, during an unusually hot summer. To Jackson Brodie, former police inspector turned private investigator, the world consists of one accounting sheet – Lost on the left, Found on the right – and the two never seem to balance. Jackson has never felt at home in Cambridge, and has a failed marriage to prove it. Surrounded by death, intrigue and misfortune, his own life haunted by a family tragedy, he attempts to unravel three disparate case histories and begins to realise that in spite of apparent diversity, everything is connected…’

 

Which are your favourite crime books?  Which would you recommend to someone just starting out with the genre?