In 1940s England, a theater troupe converges upon Oxford to produce a new play by acclaimed playwright Robert Warner. One of the actresses, Yseut Haskell, is a beautiful girl who has attracted many admirers, but her outward appearance masks a cruel and self-absorbed personality. The other people involved with the play are frankly sick of her attitude, especially when she begins to stir up trouble within the company. So it’s not particularly surprising when Yseut is subsequently found murdered — in fact, nearly everyone in the theater company expresses relief that she’s finally gotten what she deserved. In the midst of this tense situation, Oxford don Gervase Fen uses his passion for criminology and his friendship with policeman Sir Richard Freeman to investigate the murder. As he talks to the various suspects and uncovers some unpleasant secrets, he begins to wonder whether exposing the murderer is really the best course of action.
This is a fairly typical Golden Age mystery, and as a fan of that genre, I enjoyed this book. I found Gervase Fen entertaining, although he wasn’t as prominent in the book as I expected he’d be; much of the story is told from the viewpoint of Nigel Blake, a young man who becomes involved with the theater troupe and falls in love with one of the actresses. I can see why Crispin chose that approach, though, because Fen claims to have solved the murder within three minutes of viewing the body! I also found Fen’s qualms about exposing the murderer very interesting. In many mysteries, it’s taken as a matter of course that the murderer should be unmasked and brought to justice; however, in this case the victim is a truly unpleasant person, and many of the characters think that the murderer did them a favor. Finally, I was struck by the fact that this really doesn’t feel like the first book of a series; there are several allusions to Fen’s past cases, and as I mentioned before, his character isn’t particularly fleshed out. Nevertheless, there are a few more Gervase Fen books, and I’ll probably seek them out at some point.