The “gather all of the suspects” scene that closes out many a classic detective novel holds enduring appeal, despite its repeated use. Just as appealing, albeit less common, is the opening scene in which all of the suspects gather in preparation for the violent and puzzling events to come. Crispin executes the latter effect beautifully in this novel, which introduces the reading public to Professor Gervase Fen, Professor of English Language and Literature at Oxford University. A slew of characters, traveling singly or in pairs, arrive by train in the ancient university town and bring with them an array of worries, resentments, secrets, and desires. Along with Fen, they include the chief constable of Oxford; the young journalist Nigel Blake, who serves as a sidekick to Fen (and whose name and role echo the Nigel Bathgate figure who appears in many of Ngaio Marsh’s novels about Inspector Roderick Alleyn); and group of people associated with the Oxford Repertory Theater, which will soon put on a new play titled Metromania. In a series of vignettes, Crispin profiles each character evocatively and expeditiously, and along the way he plants clear indications that every member of the theater circle has a motive to kill a particular colleague: Yseut Haskell, a self-involved actress who flaunts her sexuality offstage with greater energy than she applies to her work onstage.
The narrative stage is set (as it were) for crime. Sure enough, a couple of days after rehearsals for the play begin, Yseut takes a bullet to her forehead while she prowls around a room at St. Christopher’s College, the fictitious Oxford institution that Fen calls home. The room isn’t sealed, but the murder bears the marks of seeming impossibility. During the critical period before and after a shot had rang out from the room, a workman saw no one enter or leave the stairwell that leads to the crime scene. Fen, whose room at the college happens to be directly above that location, was hosting a party there, and almost immediately upon hearing the shot, he and Blake swooped downstairs to discover the slain woman. In her hand was a gun that she had ostensibly used on herself. Surely there was no time for a killer to quit the scene, let alone commit any trickery with the body. So impossible does the murder scenario appear to be that the police cling to a theory of suicide. But Fen never doubts that an unseen hand fired the deadly shot.
The mood of this début work is by turns dark and breezy. Fen allows two other murders to occur before he sees fit to divulge what he knows about the killer and the initial killing. In the meantime, he deliberates at length over whether he should let the murderer remain unrevealed and unpunished. Like many other brilliant amateur sleuths of his era, he harbors a cavalier attitude toward the sanctity of life and the rule of law. In his philosophy of detection, apparently, some deeds are worse than homicide and some values are loftier than truth. Even so, the dominant mode of the narrative is comic. Crispin writes in a jaunty tone, and midway through the book he presents an interlude that evokes the power of love to triumph over death. Reprising the technique used in his opening chapter, he offers glimpses into the private musings of each suspect. But this time, in a nod to the tradition of Shakespearean comedy, he sorts his characters into romantic pairings.
As a puzzle plotter, Crispin displays notable talent here. His solution to the murder of Yseut has just enough cleverness and just enough plausibility to satisfy an impossible-crime enthusiast, and he ably points the vector of suspicion in multiple directions. Still, the mechanics of the plot break down in ways that one might expect in an apprentice piece: Fen stays mum about a couple of pivotal clues—that is, until he discloses them in his summing-up comments. In addition, the motive for the original murder is contrived and hidden from view, and Crispin handles it in a cursory fashion. The puzzle as a whole, meanwhile, borders on being too complex. Most readers, to keep their bearings, will need the diagram and the timetable that the author helpfully provides.
Crispin, as Anthony Boucher observed in his brief notice on the novel, blends the styles and storytelling methods of John Dickson Carr and Michael Innes. From Carr, he takes a flair for bold trick plotting and a preference for bold, feisty characters. From Innes, he takes a knack for over-the-top erudition and a familiarity with arty and academic settings. From both of these precursors, he derives a Chestertonian sensibility that treats the detective novel as more akin to an Arabian Nights tale than to a police report. In that spirit, he peppers this tale with in-jokes. The Nigel Blake character alludes not only to Marsh’s work but also to another precursor with a highbrow pedigree—the poet Cecil Day Lewis, who wrote novels about the detective Nigel Strangeways under the name Nicholas Blake. And Fen at one point signals that he resides in the same fictional universe as one of Carr’s heroes. (“Heaven grant Gideon Fell never becomes privy to my lunacy,” he says.)
Written toward the end of the Second World War, The Case of the Gilded Fly takes place in October 1940, when the Battle of Britain was still raging in the skies over the English Channel. Yet, although nightly blackout procedures factor somewhat importantly in the events that surround the death of Yseut Haskell, the titanic struggle for national survival registers as little more than a sideshow. The Oxford setting hovers on a practically timeless plane, and from start to finish Crispin stays true to the escapist promise of the detective genre. While the plot of the novel is decidely complex, its underlying message is simple: There will always be an England. And there will always be murder.