Monday, March 14, 2011

Monday Review: THE MOVING TOYSHOP (1946) by Edmund Crispin

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.)


  1. Hi Yvette,

    I found your blog through John's a couple of weeks ago and have enjoyed it since. What a gorgeous blog, not to mention that you have good taste in books, meaning that it's similar to mine! When I saw your Edmund Crispin review, I had to add my two cents. He's a favorite of mine, for all the reasons you've noted. If you haven't read the Bryant & May series by Christopher Fowler, Fowler pays homage to Crispin in "The Victoria Vanishes." Worth reading on its own, but doubly fun when you get the link. If you have read Fowler, sorry to take up space with something you already know. Love the blog - looking forward to more beautiful art and good reviews.

  2. I'm so glad you've discovered Crispin. I just love him and Gervase Fen. Wonderful review! Will get you updated on the progress page asap.

  3. Carol: Thanks so much! I'm glad you found me. I love the Bryant and May series! Can't wait for the next one. And by the way, have you seen Fowler's entertaining blog? These are wonderful books. I'm happy to talk to another fan. ;)

    I am definitely going to be reading more of Crispin's work - for sure. I love his style.

  4. I've read one Crispin and really liked it. I hope to read more but our local libraries don't have much to offer. And I totally sympathise with your retreat into some sort of comfort reading right now. I feel the same way. After watching the news I need something to escape into that takes me away from the real world. I think I hear Dorothy Sayers calling!

  5. Bev: Thanks! I'm glad too, Bev. A big surprise for me. This book has been sitting on my shelves for ages. Don't even remember where I got it. (That happens a lot around here.)

  6. Pam: Yes, my library doesn't have as many vintage authors as I would wish. They have some Sayers though. AND I found some more Mary Roberts Rinehart - hooray!

    Books like these are wonderful retreats. :)

  7. Yvette I got about a third of the way through Strange and Morrell. Put it aside for a rainy day. Loved the character detail, and attention to place, but it moved a bit too slow, but I guess that should have been part of its attraction for me to.
    Great memories of that penguin paperback novel, to my childhood, with the back room bookcase piled high with penguin paperbacks. The book case held more sobre reading, biblical summaries, and Moby Dick and most of the works of Charles Dickens.

  8. Oh, I DO love reading this blog! Now I have even more authors to try out! Not come across Christopher Fowler, but am interested to read this 'Bryant & May' series having looked up info on !
    (Incidently, in the UK 'Bryant & May' are a firm that makes matches! Wonder if that's where he got the idea for the names?)

  9. Dave: I had the same problem with the JONATHAN STRANGE AND MR. NORRELL - a bit too slow going. I think I'm going to listen to the audio one of these days. I have a feeling I'll like that.

    I actually have this green Penguin edition, Dave. Though, as I said, I can't remember where it came from. ;)

  10. Sue: So happy you like my blog, m'dear. I aim to please. The Bryant and May series is wonderful. You need to read the first book in the series, though. Probably it wouldn't hurt to read them in order if you can. I think you'll like them. :)

  11. I'd agree that the B&M books should be read in order. And I do enjoy Fowler's blog. His output is prodigious! I don't know how he manages to read, review, blog and write at such a pace. I've only read B&M, and the first book of his bio ("Paperboy"). His horror output is huge, but I haven't read any of it (not really my thing, but I'll bet they are good reads if you like that genre.

  12. How well I remember loving this book and yet, I am not sure I ever read another of his.

  13. You've found some wonderful book blogs, and their blog events to follow, Yvette! This sounds like an interesting book!

  14. Carol: I don't read horror either. Just never got into it. I'm not fond of really dark noirish crime tales either. When I read the first book in the Bryant and May stories, I was fooled for awhile. I thought you-know-who had died. ;)

  15. Patti: My library doesn't have any of his work. I'm going to hunt around the used book dealers online. I really enjoyed this book.:)

  16. Pat: If you love the vintage mysteries of the Golden Age, then this book is for you. I loved it, Pat. But I've been reading mysteries since I was a kid. :)

    You should try it. Maybe you'll discover you like them as well.

  17. For what it's worth, Felony & Mayhem has been reprinting many of the Crispin books. They're all fun; I'm particularly partial to "Swan Song" (where Fen tackles the opera world and an impossible crime as well), but they're all very much worth reading. Glad you enjoyed "Toyshop" so much!

  18. Thanks for that comment, Les. "Swan Song" is the only Crispin I could never get my hands on, even through interlibrary loan. Now I just may be able to find it.

  19. Les: Thanks for the tip! I should have thought of them first thing. They do a pretty good job. I'll look for SWAN SONG. I love mysteries set in the theater or opera world.

  20. Carol: Carol, FELONY AND MAYHEM have many of the Golden Age authors in reprint, including the Charlie Chan books, which is how I first discovered them. They have a good website which I have a link to on my left sideboard. As I said, I should have thought of them right away.:)

  21. One of the things I have always loved about Gervase Fen is that he knows he's a character in a book (did Jasper Fforde read these books?). His occasional swipes he takes at his publisher (Gollancz) crack me up. A hoot is right!

    Love to read of all these Crispin fans. And so happy to see you have discovered him at last, Yvette.

    Isn't it fun picking up something off your shelf that's been there for years and wondering - what took me so long? That's what happened with me and my copy of Miss Hargreaves. I had it for over five years before I finally read the thing. But it came at such a perfect time.

  22. John: Yes, there's a certain surreal nature to the book - at least this one. :) I love this sort of thing. Well, better late than never - right? My library has nothing. But Felony and Mayhem Publishers is reprinting them - hooray! Thanks to Les for the tip!

    It most definitely is fun finding long lost treasure on your bookshelves. ;) That's how I discovered Michael Innes, by the way.

  23. Felony & Mayhem is wonderful. It's owned by one of the partners at the terrific Partners and Crime mystery bookstore in Greenwich Village.

    They also are publishing the works of L.R. (Lorelei Rose) Wright, a Canadian author, who writes about a police detective in British Colombia, on the coast, so one gets beautiful descriptions of the shore and water.

  24. I looked up Fowler, and am interested in the Bryant and May series. Is it contemporary? Is it quirky, witty? I don't know about it, but it sounds intriguing.

    And the Crispin? These are vintage, it seems, especially as I looked at publication dates. I love Felony and Mayhem, so perhaps I'll try these.

    But definitely the Fowler: These are two geriatric detectives? Right up my alley. I'm not there yet, but some days...

  25. I don't remember much about the mystery but remember reading the book on a train journey. Liked the author and yes did compare him to Michael Innes. After that read quite a few books of both. What I remember most about the book was the literary games and esp that comment about Jane Austen. Sorry but am not a fan of Austen so laughed like crazy and teased a friend who was very fond of her. :)

  26. Kathy: Interesting news. I didn't know that about Felony and Mayhem's owners. Of course, I know Parners and Crime. I've been there a few times and bought stacks of books. Ah, the good old days! I love the place! It's such a special store. One of the owners is also the publicity person and website manager for author Lee Child.
    Small world.

  27. Kathy: The Bryant and May books by Christopher Fowler are very eccentric books. They take place in the modern day but feature all sorts of 'Golden Age' type crimes. The writing is excellent. I love this series. BUT you have to read the first book first. They are funny and witty and very suspenseful. I love the idea of geriatric detectives. These stories could only happen in England. And you know what an Anglophile I am. :) Go to and you'll get a list of all the books in order.

  28. neer: Everyone's entitled to their opinion of Jane Austen - even if it's the wrong one. Ha! I love the literary games in the Crispin book. It's just the sort of thing that eccentric literary types WOULD do. As I said, I am definitely going to read more of these books. :)

  29. Are all Crispins full of literary games? Start with first?

  30. Kathy: I meant for you to begin the Bryant and May books by Christopher Fowler with the first book in the series.

    I don't know if all the Crispin books are filled with literary games. I've only read one: THE MOVING TOYSHOP.

    Sorry if I didn't make that clear.

  31. Yvette, I can't resist another Crispin quote, speaking of literary games. In "Sudden Vengeance," which I will be reviewing on my site in a few weeks, Fen has been hired by a movie studio as a technical consultant to lend some authenticity to a movie about an 18th-century British poet, Alexander Pope. Fen is speaking to Inspector Humbleby, trying to explain about the movie:

    “It’s based on the life of Pope.”

    “The Pope?”


    “Now which Pope would that be, I wonder?” said Humbleby with the air of one who tries to take an intelligent interest in what is going forward. “Pius or Clement, or – “

    Fen stared at him. “Alexander, of course.”

    “You mean” – Humbleby spoke with something of an effort – “you mean the Borgia?”

    “Don’t be so ridiculous, Humbleby,” said Fen. "Do you really imagine they’ve called in a Professor of English to instruct them about the Borgias? No, I mean the poet, of course.”

    As you have frequently observed, Yvette...HA!

  32. Les: I'd probably mix the thing up myself never having read Pope either. Ha!

    But I love Fen's assumption that of course EVERYONE should have heard of Alexander Pope.

    I can't wait to read more of these books.


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