Monday, 6 June 2011

The Case of the Gilded Fly - Edmund Crispin (1944)

Edmund Crispin is - with Marjory Allingham - the best writer to have a pop at crime fiction in the golden era of British crime in the 1930s and 40s. His Gervase Fen, unlike Allingham's Campion, is a supremely confident, often arrogant man, who makes no attempt to hide either his confidence or his arrogance, but his actions - like Campion's - wholly justify any preening he may do. I like him loads, but this is the first time I've read the first book in the series, The Case of the Gilded Fly.

There's nothing surprising on show - Fen arrives fully-formed in the first few pages, and I see little character growth between this and other Fen books I've read. He's bad-tempered, arrogant and a smart-arse, delights in knowing more than anyone else, and there's never any doubt he'll solve the puzzle at hand. That puzzle is fairly straight-forward in itself, although the specific solution to the crime is in some ways even more esoteric and unlikely than that in Crispin's masterpiece, The Moving Toyshop.

What is missing is a lot of the humour of the latter books, which is a shame since there's been at least one laugh out loud line in each of the other Fen novels I've read. I did like the meta-fictional touches though: Fen muttering that he was getting bored of the entire plot and various references by both Fen and Sir Richard, his police officer friend, about the proper use of characterisation in detective novels and just how many clues (and how interesting) need be left for the reader. Amusing if perhaps not entirely necessary (and even a little over-used to be honest).

Crispin has an inventive touch with metaphor and a very readable tone (even if attitudes to class and sex have move don since the forties), which is fairly impressive for a novel written while he was still at University, but he perhaps has less control over the story than in succeeding books. Even for a relatively short novel, there's what feels like padding as an elderly guest tells a ghost story which Fen rationalises and explains later on. Like the rest of the book it almost works and you can see what Crispin was trying to do in creating a b-mystery for Fen to show off with, but it doesn't quite click.

By the next book in the series, though, the author is far more confident and Fen never looks back.

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