Monday, March 25, 2024

The Case of the Gilded Fly, by Edmund Crispin

"My gnomic utterances," said Fen severely, "reduce themselves to three: that I do not believe in the crime passionnel; that the motive for murder is almost always either money, vengeance or security; and that none the less it is sex which is at the heart of this business." (pp. 198-9)

It's years since I read The Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispin, a brilliant, daft and inventive mystery featuring Gervase Fen, Oxford don and amateur sleuth. Some stuff in the past year has prompted me to pick up Fen's other cases.

One such prompt was Life of Crime by Martin Edwards. Then there's the beautiful new edition of Crispin's short stories which I got for Christmas. And then there's the bits about Crispin in the BBC's files on early Doctor Who, which I dug through when writing my book.

(A digression: Edmund Crispin and Doctor Who... 

On 5 March 1962, Eric Maschwitz, working as assistant and adviser to Donald Baverstock, the BBC's Controller of Television Programmes, asked the head of the script department Donald Wilson whether science-fiction stories on TV had to be done as six-part serials, in the manner of Quatermass or A for Andromeda. Maschwitz asked if there was scope for standalone, 50-minute stories, either run singly or as part of a series. Asa Briggs, in his history of the BBC, suggests this was prompted by the large audience that tuned in on 20 February to watch John Glenn make the USA's first crewed orbital spaceflight; I've heard others suggest that Maschwitz may have been inspired by the US anthology series The Twilight Zone (1959-64), which was first broadcast in the UK on ITV's east of England franchise Anglia Television from 4 January 1962.

Whatever the case, Wilson saw the value of this idea and on 17 April replied to Maschwitz saying that he'd set up a unit to report on this. A four-page report, written by Donald Bull, was delivered on 25 April. Bull said he and his colleague Alice Frick had consulted studies of SF by Brian Aldiss, Kingsley Amis and Edmund Crispin, and Frick also met with Aldiss in person.

Crispin's name cropped up again a year later when, on 23 May 1963, Frick reported to Wilson (now head of serials) that she'd met with the author. Having at that point edited three volumes of Best SF anthologies for Faber, Crispin was able to provide Frick with names and addresses of writers he thought could produce good science-fiction for TV. These were: JG Ballard, Kingsley Amis, Robert Conquest, Brian Aldiss, Eric Frank Russell and Harry Harrison. Crispin also suggested that he might compose the theme music for whatever it was Frick and Wilson had in mind.

I think we can guess what that was. Frick's memo to Wilson was written one week after he, BBC staff writer CE Webber and head of drama Sydney Newman finalised a three-page "General Notes on Background and Approach" document for a new science-fiction serial called Doctor Who. Frick's memo - and Donald Bull's report from the year before, which cites Crispin - are included in a folder of early Doctor Who production paperwork ("Doctor Who General B", T5-648-1) held at the BBC's Written Archives Centre in Caversham. So Crispin was surely being consulted about established SF writers who might write for Doctor Who, and he then put himself forward to write the theme music.

That's not so odd as it might sound. Crispin was, under his real name Bruce Montgomery, a composer, producing orchestral works as well as scores for more than 30 films including Doctor in the House (1954) and Carry On Sergeant (1958), and various sequels of each. Much of his screen work was for this kind of light comedy, so he might have seemed an odd fit for the science-fiction series Wilson had in mind. But I'm struck that the titular sergeant in the first Carry On film was played by William Hartnell, who two months after Crispin's meeting with Frick was cast as Doctor Who

Anyway, I digress...)

The Case of the Gilded Fly is Crispin's first novel, published in 1944 and set in October 1940. It begins with different people all arriving in Oxford, effectively a long, comic prologue about the shortcomings of trains. Among these characters are various actors, a writer, a journalist, an organist, a professor of English language and literature who is also an amateur detective, and a chief constable who is a published literary critic. 

"By Thursday, 11 October, they were all in Oxford. ... And within the week that followed three of these eleven died by violence." (p. 21)

That sets up a suspenseful plot but things then proceed rather gradually, the first death not discovered until as late as p. 74. By then, we've established that actress Yseut Haskell has few friends among the company of the play she is rehearsing, meaning everyone is a suspect - if, in fact, she's been murdered. It just so happens that her body is found in a room downstairs from where Gervase Fen lives with his wife, so they are quickly caught up in the case. In fact, Fen deduces who killed Yseut that same night and then spends most of the rest of the book keeping this fact to himself, so as not to interrupt rehearsals of the play. That surely means he has some responsibility when the murderer kills someone else...

If this is not very satisfactory, there is also a fair bit of what feels like cheating - Fen and the author keeping evidence from us, so they have more to work with than we do. The last full chapter involves 10 pages of Fen spelling out everything, which feels a little clunky - at least some of this could have been revealed earlier, to avoid such lengthy exposition.

While this first novel by Crispin could be improved structurally, it's also great fun - and constantly surprising. At one point, there's the incongruous image of a room in an Oxford college filled with monkeys and typewriters but - to the disappointment of the academic study being conducted - declining to write Shakespeare. On another occasion, we get a vision of halcyon days before the war.

"'Tell me, Nigel,' said Fen, whose mind was on other things, 'were you here for the celebrations on All Hallow E'en three or four years ago?'

'When the college danced naked on the lawn in the moonlight? Yes, I was involved - in fact suffered disciplinary penalties which must have paid for the SCR port for several weeks.'

'Those were the days. Were any fairies in evidence?'

'We counted at one stage of the evening and deduced the presence of an unknown among us. But whether it was a fairy or just one of the dons we never knew.'"(pp. 117-8)

None of this is for the sake of the plot; it just adds to the fun. There are gags and literary allusions, the title of the book taken from Act IV, scene 4 of King Lear - though the author makes us look it up ourselves.

The murder of Yseut Haskell is ingeniously devised to fool the police into thinking it was suicide. Crispin, a composer, makes clever play with music in the plot - the organist's sheet music and use of organ stops are vital to unravelling the mystery, and the sound of a gunshot is masked by a radio playing the fortissimo re-entry of the main theme during the overture from Wagner's Die Meistersinger (p. 194). I've seen it suggested that the climax of Crispin's later Fen novel The Moving Toyshop (1946) was, ahem, homaged by Alfred Hitchcock in the ending of Strangers on a Train (1951). Surely the method of disguising the murder of Yseult in this novel can be seen in Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), the Oxford college transposed to the Albert Hall.

This is Fen's first published case but we're told he's worked on several mysteries before this and is well known for his work as a sleuth. It's not the best detective story but it's a very promising start.

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