My review today is an entry in the Vintage Mysteries Reading Challenge being hosted by Bev over at her blog, MY READER'S BLOCK. Please use the link to go take a look at all the other participants and their lists of vintage reads - they are quite eye-opening. I've added several new names to by ever-growing TBR list.
Lately I don't seem to be reading what I'm supposed to be reading - look on my left side-bar and you'll see that the same three books are still stuck there. That's because instead of going back to them everyday, I've been picking up lighter fare. I don't seem to be in a non-fiction frame of mind either, so the Bach book is going to have to wait a bit. Oh well, it's not a horse-race and damn if I'm going to cave to pressure. Ha! So bear with me while I self-adjust. This is supposed to be fun - right ?
Right now, the world news is grim enough, so perhaps that's why I'm looking to read a certain type of book, trying to keep myself from dwelling on the dreadful news from Japan and the Middle East and elsewhere.
I've been reading THE MOVING TOYSHOP by Edmund Crispin during lunch these past few days, a book I've had on my shelves for a while but had never gotten around to. Well, what on earth was I waiting for? This is a total hoot of a book in the style of Michael Innes, Carter Dickson aka John Dickson Carr - the two that immediately spring to mind. (Crispin was a great admirer of both.) I think they were all writing about the same time, so, perhaps cross-influence? Who knows. These guys all seem to have had the same education, their manuscripts all pulsing with literary allusions, quotes and grumblings from obscurity. Most of the time I understood what they were on about, some of the time, I didn't. But I still enjoyed the heck out of the story.
My only quibble with THE MOVING TOYSHOP is that the 'how-to' of the solution is a bit unfair, but other than that, this is one of the best books of its type I've ever read. Oxford, is described by Crispin as the one place in the world where anything is possible and anything may happen. (I visited there once many years ago and I can well believe this.) I love this aspect of the story: that aura of absurd impossibility. Oxford don Gervase Fen is called upon in this instance to solve the riddle of the disappearance of a dead body along with the toy shop in which said body was found.
Richard Cadogan, Oxford poet and humble seeker of excitement goes up to Oxford looking for a change in his humdrum life. Of course, it is he who, in the middle of the night, stumbles across a dead woman in the dark upstairs of a toyshop. Once he fetches the police and they return to the area of the shop and the body, both have disappeared. The police, naturally, think Cadogan is either a nut or drunk.
The next day, Cadogan goes to see his friend Gervase Fen, Professor of English and Fellow of St. Christopher's at St. John's college. Fen makes a great entrance in this book, roaring up a narrow Oxford street in his obstreperous red sports car, Lily Christine III.
...The car made directly for the window where the President of the college, a thin, demure man of mildly epicurean tastes, was sunning himself. Perceiving his peril, he retreated in panic haste. But the car missed the wall of his lodging and fled on up to the end of the drive, where the driver, with a tremendous swerve of the wheel and damage to the grass borders, succeeded in turning it completely round. At this point there seemed to be nothing to stop his rushing back the way he had come, but unhappily, in righting the wheel, he pulled it over too far, and the car thundered across a strip of lawn, buried its nose in a large rhododendron bush, choked, stalled, and stopped.
Its driver got out and gazed at it with some severity. While he was doing this it backfired suddenly - a tremendous report, a backfire to end all backfires. He frowned, took a hammer from the back seat, opened the bonnet and hit something inside. The he closed the bonnet again and resumed his seat. The engine started and the car went into reverse with a colossal jolt and began racing backwards towards the President's lodging. The President, who had returned to the window and was gazing at this scene with horrid fascination, retired again, with scarcely less haste than before. The driver looked over his shoulder, and saw the President's Lodging towering above him, like a liner above a motor-boat. Without hesitation he changed into forward gear. The car uttered a terrible shriek, shuddered like a man with the ague, and stopped...
With dignity the driver put on the brake, climbed out, and took a brief case from the back seat.
At the cessation of noise the President had approached the window again. He now flung it open.
"My dear Fen," he expostulated. "I'm glad you have left us a little of the college to carry on with. I feared you were about to demolish it entirely."
So, if the disappearing toyshop weren't enough of a clue, this beginning with Fen in the driver's seat is sure to warn you that farce will be part of the make-up of this entertaining mystery.
Once the poet and the Oxford don go off together to solve the crime they, of course, must follow obscure clues. (If you're more familiar with Edward Lear than I am, the clues won't be as obscure as they were to me. But I caught on, eventually.) Along the way the local pub, The Mace and Sceptre, takes on the central role of meeting place and hub of plotting activities. Lots of whisky is drunk as well as tea imbibed and assorted cakes, cheese and pickles consumed. Mystery solving is thirsty work. And while waiting for clues to make themselves known, Fen and Cadogan play literary games, i.e. name Unreadable Books or name Annoying Characters in Books Meant by the Author to Be Sympathetic - that sort of thing. Very fun. (Though I am not crazy about Crispin's comments re: Jane Austen.)
As Fen and Cadogan get deeper into the mystery, their various turns around Oxford and its environs reminded me very much of the old fairy tale of the Golden Goose where everyone in the town who touched the goose or the man holding the goose or the man touching the man who was holding the goose, got stuck together and ran around in an unkempt line unable to break free.
There is a very funny, farcical chase of a young woman with a spotted dog around the streets of Oxford. Fen and Cadogan follow the girl, while two henchmen follow Fen and Cadogan and they whirl about the streets and into The Sheldonian (a building of the college designed by Christopher Wren) while the choir of 300 is in rehearsal with orchestra! It's just too absurd and wonderful. Very visual as well. You can see the entire scene develop before your eyes as you read.
...The haven of the basses achieved at last, a number of further difficulties presented themselves. The Sheldonian is not particularly spacious, and the members of a large choir have to be herded together in conditions not unreminiscent of the Black Hole of Calcutta. When Fen and Cadogan, pushing, perspiring and creating a great deal of localized pother, had penetrated the basses to a certain distance...they could literally get no farther; they were wedged, and even the avenue by which they had come was now irrevocably closed and sealed. Everyone was staring at them. Moreover, an old man who had sung in the Handel Society choir for fifty years thrust a copy of the Brahms at them. This was unfortunate, as Fen, seeing no chance of moving for some time and being content to stop where he was and keep an eye on the girl they were pursuing, took it into his head to improve the shining hour by joining in the singing; and Fen's voice, though penetrating, was neither tuneful nor accurate.
There's more along these lines as the chase continues and they follow the girl into a service at St. Christophers, never taking their eyes off the prize no matter what obstacle or how many perplexed people they encounter, including again, the President of the College.
In the middle of all this, the cops take up the chase because Cadogan in one of his and Fen's fruitless efforts to discover the missing toyshop, has inadvertently burgled a couple of tins of food from a grocery which appears to have taken the toy shop's place. It's all very mystifying.
Okay, what it all boils down to is this: Six months before the current frenetic action, a very wealthy and eccentric woman, Miss Snaith, was run over by a bus. Her very odd will left a secret trust in the charge of a smarmy lawyer named Rosseter. If the woman's niece (whom she disliked intensely) Miss Tardy, doesn't show up within six months of the death of Miss Snaith, to claim the inheritance, then the money (a great deal of money) goes to several other people, all strangers to each other. That's the gist of the murderous plot. Of course it all goes wrong when the 'strangers' band together to prevent Miss Tardy (the dead woman in the toyshop) - living abroad and only just arrived in Oxford - from collecting her inheritance so that THEY may swoop in and collect the money instead. Get it?
There's hardly a moment to lose and, as we all know, there's little honor among thieves, so a second murder occurs right before Fen and Cadogan's incredulous eyes as they, themselves, are just about to be done away with.
As this search for a murderer intensifies, Fen and Cadogan pick up people who join in the chase for no other reason, it seems, than the chase is occurring. My favorites among them are Wilkes, an old, cranky and slightly deaf professor who can still ride a bike with the best of them, and the young student, Hoskins, whose skill with the ladies comes in handy.
An unexpected occurrence which I found just as entertaining as the story: the author occasionally has Fen make a comment which is meant for the reading audience. I love this sort of thing. (Robert Crais does this in his Elvis and Joe books and is one of the reasons his work appeals to me so much.) Rather than stop the story in its tracks, it just adds a certain charm to its aspect.
Obviously, I was enchanted by this book and recommend it highly, most especially to the Anglophiles and vintage mystery lovers among you. And you know who you are.
(This is my first Crispin. I'll definitely be reading more as I come across them.)