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This Golden Age detective novel begins with eleven people arriving in wartime Oxford, most of whom are involved with putting on a new play out of the glare of London critics. We are told that within the week, three of these people will die by violence, and the author sets the scene nicely with a cast of characters that seem full of jealousy and intrigue. These include the playwright Robert Warner, actress Yseut Haskell who seems universally disliked, organist Donald Fellowes, who is in love with the uncaring Yseut, and journalist Nigel Blake, who studied under Gervase Fen and is hoping to meet actress Helen Haskell, Yseut's sister, and who is the main character we witness events through. He is a likeable and pleasant young man who has been invalided out of the war after Dunkirk and whose knowledge of both Fen and the cast tie the book together nicely.

As Nigel attends rehearsals we witness the anger, jealousy and dispute that Yseut causes. Events escalate until they end in murder. This is almost a locked door mystery, with a lot of motives, no alibis and an almost impossible crime. Still, Gervase Fen, who is great friends with Sir Richard Freeman, the Chief Constable of Oxford, states he knows who is responsible for the crime. Gervase is a "cherubic, naive, volatile and entirely delightful" character, totally uninhibited and often rude, extremely intelligent and a specialist in English Literature, which is Sir Richard's passion in the same way that Fen is obsessed with crime.

This is a very atmospheric novel. I enjoyed the setting, with the use of rep theatre, Oxford University and the wartime era being used to great effect. The plot was convuluted but interesting, the characters good. Yseult is the wicked witch of the piece, causing scenes of arguments and mistrust in every scene she appears in. Some may feel certain characters are criticised unfairly on grounds of morality, but you must remember when the book is set and judge it on that basis. Many authors from this period use language and state arguments that are not seen as acceptable now, but were perfectly normal then. If you like books set in this era and enjoy authors such as Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, Nicholas Blake or Christianna Brand, you will certainly enjoy this.
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This is the first of Edmund Crispin's 'Gervase Fen' detective novels and was written whilst he was still an undergraduate. It's the type of mystery which is simply not written anymore, and you will either love it or hate it. The rather reluctant sleuth - who helps out the local police when they get stuck with cases - is an irascible lecturer in English at a fictitious Oxford college who complains loudly about aspects of modern life, the way in which detective novels themselves tend to be constructed and the inability of his companion, the young Nigel Blake, to see how the available evidence points towards the perpetrator of the murder which is being investigated.

The novel is sprinkled with literary allusions, references and quotations alongside some outlandish scenes including a cage full of typewriters and monkeys ("copulating uninterestingly") in the college quadrangle and a pub where you are unlikely to be served unless you are a regular, which features a bald caged parrot which loudly quotes Heine when it's closing time.

Despite Fen's protestations, you'll be doing well to spot the murderer before the 'reveal' towards the end of the book - it could be any one of at least 11 credible suspects, all of whom are in Oxford for the premiere of a new play.

I've given the book 4 stars because there are better books in the series than this, the 'star' of which has to be The Moving Toyshop which is simply wonderful.
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on 27 March 2017
Fun if you like Fen
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on 20 May 2017
Great book!
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on 27 December 2013
This book is like Marmite, you'll either love it or hate it. It's a quaintly 1940's English detective story, which is amusing yet serious at the same time with a few red herrings thrown in for good measure. Not a type of book that would suit most lovers of crime, but entertaining enough.
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TOP 50 REVIEWERon 18 March 2013
Edmund Crispin was the pseudonym of an English crime writer and composer, Robert Bruce Montgomery. The nine Gervase Fen mysteries were published originally between 1944 and 1977. Gervase, an Oxford Don, and professor of English finds himself involved in a murder mystery. While that may relieve him of some of the boredom he had been feeling, it is not an altogether pleasant experience.

Right from the start of this book, describing the leisurely progress of the train on its way to Oxford in October 1940, the reader is aware that they are in the company of a writer who has a highly sharp and witty style, with an economical use of the English language, and a fairly acerbic wit. I found myself re-reading sentences to savour the joy and humour that are hidden under the top layer.

The murder, which appears for some time to have been suicide has police and Gervase Fen involved in seeking to resolve the mystery. The characters all involved in the story are suitably either troubled, ghastly, naïve or eccentric. Fen himself is a character indeed who has his own take on life. This is a great `classic' whodunnit, and I'm glad I have discovered a new author to read. Totally recommended.
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on 9 February 2015
If you think that words such as: logomachy; objurgatory; constatation; jocosity; aposiopesis; apolaustic and pleonasm are sensible words to use in a work of detective fiction, then this is the book for you, as long as you don't object to the fact that the author is not able to use "who" and "whom" correctly. The whole book is merely self satisfied showing off. The only thing that is more annoying than the protagonist is the whole book.
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on 26 August 2012
A fun mystery, well designed plot, and plenty of characters and red herrings. A good evocation of time and place, with well-described settings. I just didn't warm to many of the characters, perhaps the book was just too dated. It also felt as though we were running to stay in the same place sometimes - the pace got a bit hysterical. A worthwhile read, but not one of his best.
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on 14 December 2009
I always find it difficult to write about mysteries. Difficult to say what you want to say without giving too much away. So here's a reminder what the cover tells you, and then I'll expand a little with my reaction:

"Yseut Haskell, a pretty but spiteful young actress with a talent for destroying men's lives, is found dead in a college room just metres from unconventional Oxford don Gervase Fen's office. The victim is found wearing an unusual ring, a reproduction of a piece in the British Museum featuring a gold gilded fly but does this shed any light on her murder? As they delve deeper into Yseut's unhappy life the police soon realise that anyone who knew her would have shot her, but can Fen discover who could have shot her? "The Case of the Gilded Fly" is the first Gervase Fen mystery and is the perfect introduction to this most idiosyncratic, eccentric and entertaining detective."

Gervase Fen is an Oxford don. His subject is English literature and he has a keen interest in the art of detection.

His old friend, Sir Richard Freeman is Chief Constable of Oxford and he is fascinated by books and literature.

Two wonderfully drawn characters, giving a very interesting perspective on the events which will unfold.

Both are travelling back to Oxford by train.

The story opens with a passage describing the varying behaviour of passengers as a train approaches its destination. Maybe not essential to the plot but, because it is so perfectly observed, so engaging and so beautifully written, that it is the perfect appetizer.

All of the principals in the story that is to come are travelling to Oxford by train too. Each in turn is carefully described. a little contrived maybe, but it is so well done that you really can't mind. And the relationships of the theatrical troupe at the centre of things are quite complex, so its useful to be able to refer back.

There is a death. A strange death. It couldn't have been suicide, it couldn't have been an accident, and it definitely happened, so it must be murder. There is no shortage of suspects - pretty much anybody could have had a motive for this particular killing. But just how the murderer did it is quite baffling.

That makes this mystery particularly compelling, and a wonderful cast of characters gives it life and depth.

Fen has the solution almost immediately, but he struggles with his conscience when it comes to identifying the murderer.

That solution, when it comes is extraordinary, but utterly logical and possible.

And so you have a perfect mystery, beautifully written and perfectly evoking time and place.

Gervase Fenn though is a character you are likely to either love or hate. He is erudite but has a tendency to be verbose; his conversations are peppered with literary illusions - some I picked up and some passed me by; and he has immense confidence in his own abilities.

For me it was love, and I look forward to meeting him again.
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on 8 January 2010
Edmund Crispin sets up an intriguing mystery around a collection of characters involved with a rep theatre company in Oxford, set (and written) during the second world war. The detective is Gervase Fen, an Oxford don, who is as eccentric as he is brilliant. He is helped along by Nigel, a slightly confused and clueless journalist and Oxford graduate who plays the role of the reader - stumbling across information but unable to solve the crime as effortlessly as Fen. The cast of the story, and the suspects in the murder, are an agreeably dislikeable bunch of stereotypes, and the central puzzle is well worked out, with a few clever twists.

Crispin is clearly a fan of the murder mystery format, and he respects it here as an intellectual game. There is not a hint of psychological realism, and the book is littered with self-conscious references to the genre and to literature in general. Characters often quote famous literary passages, and their speech is sometimes described according to its grammatical correctness. In other words, The Case of the Gilded Fly is well written and well constructed, albeit in a way that puts everything at service to the main mystery. As a result, the puzzle is as darkly simple as a cryptic crossword puzzle, but the story occasionally stretches a little too far beyond the bounds of credibility.

There are a few touches that struck me as in bad taste, but that is probably because of the time when this book was written - there is an underlying trail of misogyny and classism, for instance. All in all, not one of his best books, but a good fun read nevertheless.
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