Witnesses hear a gunshot. Investigating, they find the victim lying alone in a locked room, gun next to the body. Powder burns suggest suicide - and, besides, witnesses outside the room insist it would have been impossible for anyone to enter or leave that room without being seen. So the police are sure it was a suicide.
Not Gervase Fen, Professor of English Literature at Oxford University. He is certain it is murder - and, to the evident distress of the police, he sets out not only to prove his point but also to discover who did what to whom - and how. (With accident ruled out, suicide and murder both seemingly impossible, one police inspector observes, gloomily, "The only conclusion is...that the thing never happened at all.")
That's the plot, in a nutshell, of a remarkably high-spirited mystery, "The Case of the Gilded Fly," by Edmund Crispin, the 1945 mystery that introduced Professor Fen to readers who found the combination of quirky humor, intelligence, fascinating characters and a complex, often-twisting plot absolutely irresistable. "The Case of the Gilded Fly" is the subject of this week's audio review on the Classic Mysteries podcast, and you can listen to the entire review by clicking here.
The plot centers on the members of the Oxford Repertory Theatre and the people associated with the group, along with a number of outsiders, including Professor Fen. As the blurb on one edition of this book notes, "Being a Don notwithstanding, Fen's true interest is police work. Fittingly, the real interest of Sir Richard Freeman, Oxford's Chief Constable, is English literature. Each has developed a fine scorn for the other's reputed field of competence."
That's true enough, and the scenes involving the two men (and Fen's persistent annoying of the Chief Constable) add considerably to the humor. Crispin, particularly in the earliest Fen books, has a wonderful way of throwing the reader off his/her stride by sudden mood shifts. Crispin also provides some inside jokes for mystery readers to enjoy; at one point, talking with his friend (and Watson in this book), Nigel Blake, Fen suddenly stops:
He broke off, staring blankly in front of him. "Lord, Lord, what a fool I've been! And yes - it fits - absolutely characteristic. Heaven grant Gideon Fell never becomes privy to my lunacy; I should never hear the end of it." He gaped.
Nigel regarded him coldly, "Stop this exhibition," he said, "which you know perfectly well is unintelligible to everyone but yourself, and let's go."
That's pretty typical. Crispin has Fen invoke (as if they were real people) fictional detectives, including J. D. Carr's Dr. Fell. He does so, as Nigel Blake suggests, to tweak the reader's nose.
If it sounds as if I'm thoroughly enchanted by Fen and by Crispin, well, yes. I am. "The Case of the Gilded Fly" has flaws, but who cares? It is available in a very good edition from the Felony & Mayhem Press. If you have a good sense of humor and enjoy a fine "impossible crime" mystery (and don't mind having your nose tweaked a bit by a playful author), make it a point to find and read "The Case of the Gilded Fly."