Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Penguin no. 1315: The Moving Toyshop
by Edmund Crispin

     "But look here, isn't it about time the police took over this business altogether?"
     "Yes," said Fen frankly. "It is. And if I were a public-spirited citizen that's what I should let them do. But I'm not a public-spirited citizen, and anyway I consider this business is our party. The police wouldn't believe us when we put the thing to them in the first place; we've done all the investigation and we've run all the risks. I consider we've a perfect right to go on and finish the business in our own way. In fact, my blood's up. There's something romantic about me," he added reflectively. "I'm an adventurer manqué: born out of my time."

Gervase Crispin was a character in Michael Innes' 1937 crime novel Hamlet Revenge!, one of the many suspects, and Bruce Montgomery seems to have drawn from him the inspiration for both his pseudonym, and the name of his amateur detective, the Professor of English Language and Literature at Oxford, Gervase Fen. Fen seems to be a man of limitless energy and tireless enthusiasm, at least when challenged by an unsolved mystery: only twenty four hours elapse between Richard Cadogan's inadvertent discovery, around midnight, of the murdered Miss Tandy in a flat adjoining a toy shop somewhere along the Iffley Road, and Fen's dramatic capture of the gun-toting murderer on an out-of-control carousel in the nearby Botley fairground.

Cadogen is knocked unconscious within minutes of discovering the murdered woman, and awakes to find that both the body and the toy shop appear to have vanished. The police are dubious, but Fen is intrigued, and in a single productive day, helped by an assortment of contacts, he achieves the most remarkable outcomes: he finds out the name of the victim, determines the motive for her murder, identifies the small group of suspects from the vaguest of literary clues, tracks them all down (including three who attempt to flee), rescues a kidnapped woman, locates the missing toy shop, and solves two murders.

The plot is complicated and absurd, and yet there is an exuberance and an irreverence about the story and its telling, which make it an entertaining and enjoyable book to read. Fen simply never seems to stand still, and he seems to have no time for teaching. The very few moments of quiet have to be forced on him, such as when he finds himself imprisoned in a cupboard. Even then he doesn't turn to reflection or contemplation, or use logic to deduce a solution to the crime. Instead, he consumes all quiet moments with a series of literary games, such as thinking up alternative book titles for Crispin, or nominating detestable characters in fiction, or the worst lines of Shakespeare.

Somewhere beneath the capering, the affectation, the gently mocking tone and the undergraduate humour, there seemed to be a conventional Golden Age-style puzzle to solve, with a map, a locked room, and a tight window of opportunity for the murderer. But it was difficult to take seriously alongside the farcical pursuits, the fortuitous stumbling across clues,  and the improbably helpful conversations with strangers. However, the story was entertaining largely because it acknowledged its unreality, with the characters aware of their fictional status and the unlikeliness of all that occurs.

Although this book was published in 1946, it is set in pre-war Oxford, continuing the tradition of the Oxford crime novel established by such works as An Oxford Tragedy and Death at the President's Lodgings, but with an important difference. Where those early novels defined Oxford as the University and portrayed the closed world of the academics which seemed largely indifferent to undergraduates, this story embraces Oxford as a town, and undergraduates are integral to the plot. The constant action of the novel seems almost choreographed to take in as many of Oxford's streets and buildings as possible. With a character as industrious as Fen, any smaller stage seems inconceivable.


  1. Great review! It reminded me of how much I enjoyed this book, many years ago (I grew up in Oxford so usually enjoy reading books set there.)

  2. I loved this book when I read it. It is a bit silly, but great fun.

  3. Hi - I've just referenced your blog in my post about Elspeth Huxley's 'Murder on Safari'. I hope you don't mind!

  4. A really insightful review, thanks! I enjoyed this book, and can see why it is so well-known among golden age mystery fans. It was funnier than i expected it to be. I liked how it made the thriller a farcical thing, rather caper-y. I'll definitely be checking out more of Crispin's work.



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