Stop the presses for a startling literary discovery — the first inklings of meta-fiction in a Golden Age English murder mystery! Yes indeed: in the early pages of The Case of the Gilded Fly professor/detective Gervase Fen says “In fact I’m the only literary critic turned detective in the whole of fiction.” A bit further on, Fen and the Chief Constable of Oxford spar over the details of the murder and their importance. Fen says, “That’s all very well in a detective novel, where it has to be put in to camouflage the significant things…” and Sir Richard expresses his annoyance at “the sort of detective story in which one of the characters propounds view on how detective stories should be written.” Huh? Did writers really have this acute level of self-consciousness in 1944?
Apparently Crispin did. He was actually musician Bruce Montgomery, a composer and one-time organist at St. John’s College, Oxford, which accounts for sentences like one where he refers to “just that touch of preciosity, the lengthening, shortening, or corruption of vowels which is the prerogative of a good choir.” (A familiar concept to this choral singer.) And he wrote with a level of playful archness that makes his mysteries a cross between Agatha Christie and P.G. Wodehouse. Crispin specialized in following the form of the classic murder mystery while embroidering madly to create a baroque and very funny hybrid. The Case of the Gilded Fly, for instance, is a classic locked-room drama but it also contains the familiar trope of the dramatic performance; the victim of the first murder is the slutty actress everyone in the company loathes. And while Christie or Sayers gave us more or less human detectives, Gervase Fen is something like Sherlock Holmes on Ritalin: variously acutely observant, wildly eccentric, and as distractible as a six-year-old.
None of the characters in this novel approaches three dimensions, but you don’t really mind because the writing is so diverting in that baroque style that harks back to the Dickens, piling phrase on phrase, image on image. (Note to self: at a later point, explore further the Golden Age detective novel as a 19th-century survival.) For instance, Crispin writes a long paragraph on the beginning of the Oxford term: “Notices concerning club activities, many offensively designed, began to appear in college lodges; … a week or so later, more luggage would arrive, under the system ironically described by the railway companies as luggage in advance; tutors heaved regretful sighs, freshmen arrived in a state of crescent bewilderment and anguished self-consciousness, and college cooks meditated enormities.” (Love the use of “crescent” in its archaic sense.)
I had read previous Crispin novels but not this one, which is put out by an outfit called “Felony & Mayhem.” They usefully reissue a series of the older mysteries under their “Vintage” imprint. Notwithstanding their apparent honesty I remained skeptical about Crispin’s dates (this could have been some kind of ironic recycling, I thought) until I got to several parallel love scenes, in all of which the couples merely kissed, and agreed to get married.