I was reminded of Edmund Crispin (1921-78) when I read Christopher Fowler’s “Book Of Forgotten Authors”. I’d not read anything by him but I had bought a set of six of his Gervase Fen mystery novels a while back from “The Book People” so I plucked this introductory novel off the shelves.
Crispin published this when he was in his early twenties and went on to write nine detective novels (so I don’t need many more to compete the set) and a couple of short story collections. He was also a composer and reviewed crime fiction for The Sunday Times.
This novel is set in Oxford of 1940, just a few years before the publication date. It portrays a city that Crispin (real name Bruce Montgomery) would have known well as he studied Languages at St. John’s College. Given both its setting and publication date there is no surprise to say that the war is present, although here it simmers along more in the background in terms of blackouts, shortages and longer journeys but the emphasis here would have been to provide a measure of escapism for a contemporary audience.
Compared to some of the crime writers of this vintage Crispin feels fresh and relatively modern. He pens here a tale of an Oxford repertory group about to put on a new play by a West End playwright who comes to produce. The opening chapter, depicting a train going down to Oxford with most of the main characters on board, provides a good introductory device which sets the novel up well and had won me over early on.
When one of the actors is murdered on College grounds it falls to the Professor of English Language and Literature, Gervase Fen to put the pieces together. I’m not sure about Fen yet. As a character he feels significantly less rounded than some of the more minor players here but as a sleuth he certainly seems to have been around. Despite this being his first published outing a number of characters refer to his solving of murders in the past, suggesting darker goings on in Academic Oxford than this book would suggest. Fen is a scholar who wants to be a detective and he’s nicely paired alongside Sir Richard Freeman, the Chief Constable whose main interest is English Literature. This is a relationship I would be happy to see develop in later books in the series.
As often happens with crime novels of this age the denouement does not feel entirely satisfactory to the modern reader. I understood it but was not totally convinced by it but this would not stop me encountering more Gervase Fen mysteries as I did find the whole thing entertaining.
The Case Of The Gilded Fly was first published in 1944. I read a reprinted 2009 Vintage paperback edition.