I was the delighted recipient of a giveaway copy of Edmund Crispin’s The Case of The Gilded Fly which Karen had reviewed for the recent 1944 Club. Her mention of an opening on a train was the thing that grabbed my attention. I love novels that begin this way! When the book arrived, the cover enticed me even more – t alk about promises of sleuthy deliciousness! I started reading right away.
Now there’s not much I can add to Karen’s excellent piece, but I will say that Crispin needed that train opening on to acquaint me quickly and in detail to a troupe of 11 characters, not one of whom were to be insignificant in terms of the plot. This was also my first encounter with professor turned detective, Gervase Fen, whose conversations and literary quips were a delight to read. His erudition, of course, ran rings around the detective inspector, but without Sherlockian hubris. Nevertheless he solved The Case of the Gilded Fly much more quickly than anyone else, but held onto the solution in order to find the necessary proof. This delay was to cost another dearly, and it was a chastising lesson that I hope Fen remembers in future reads.
Comparing Crispin’s debut with Margaret Millar’s Vanish In An Instant, published only 8 years later in 1952 shows an interesting development in crime writing models. Both have a non-detective sleuth – in Millar’s case the small town-lawyer Meecham – but Millar dispenses with the side-kick. Meecham doesn’t really need one as he is hired to defend the murder suspect and thus has legitimate reason to question and query directly. The Case of The Gilded Fly is a locked-room mystery, whereas anyone could have wandered into Millar’s crime scene. Also Crispin’s whole setup is highly improbable, if not downright impossible, in particular the modus operandi of the initial murder. It’s not meant to be taken too seriously. Crispin’s remit, perfectly described in The Times obituary of 18.09.1978 was to write “an entertainment for educated readers, in which a backbone consisting of ingenious, perfectly serious, detective puzzles was most engagingly adorned with academic wit and precise good writing”.
Millar has much more serious intent.
Vanish in An Instant (now republished by Pushkin Press) starts as a suspense novel and morphs into a murder mystery But as the plot thickens – so to speak – it switches again into a fascinating portrayal of psychological dependency and I would argue of social class. When Virginia Barkeley is accused of the brutal murder of her lover, Claude Margolis, her wealthy mother sweeps in to save her. There is no problem that her money can’t fix, Yet it appears that Mrs Hamilton need not worry, because a softly-spoken man named Earl Loftus confesses to the crime. Meecham has never had an easier day’s work, and yet, after talking to Loftus, who is dying of leukaemia, he continues to investigate. When Loftus, by all accounts dirt-poor, commits suicide in jail and leaves a significant amount of money to his alcoholic mother, Meecham decides to keep digging. The tangled but moving web of relationships he uncovers not only brought a lump to my throat multiple times, but also answered the question what has a dying man got to lose?
Meecham, whilst single, is the classic loner of detective fiction. The solution too is classic cherchez la femme. But let me say, she is very well-hidden. And as Millar’s novel layers its suspense, mystery and psychology, so too the finding of the lady. Because there is a second to be found, one who will ensure that Meecham doesn’t remain single for long. Bless. (More lumps in the throat.)
This was my first outing with both authors. Loved both for entirely different reasons. As chance has it, I happen to have one acknowledged masterpiece from each on my shelves; Crispin’s The Moving Toyshop, and Millar’s The Beast in View. Something tells me good reading is coming my way this winter.