The Moving Toyshop (1946) – Edmund Crispin

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Poet Richard Cadogan is having a bit of a mid-life crisis, and decides that the best remedy is a trip to Oxford, where he studied at University. He gets the adventure he seeks and more after finding a dead body in an abandoned toyshop and being knocked out. On waking up to find the body missing, he then manages to lose the toyshop as well. Luckily, he knows who to turn to in a bizzare criminal situation: Gervase Fen, the eccentric Oxford don whose hobbies include criminal investigation and perilous driving.

The Moving Toyshop opens with an amusing scene of setup between Cadogan and his publisher, and a classic Crispin awful railway journey. Once Cadogan reaches Oxford and the toyshop, the plot takes the form of a series of incidents – each chapter is actually called an “episode” – which Cadogan, Fen, and his assistants cannonball between. Anyone expecting plausibility should give up immediately. Fen has a nice quote about coincidences in detective fiction, but he isn’t fooling anyone!

“Don’t spurn coincidence in that casual way,” said Fen severely. “I know your sort. You say the most innocent encounter in a detective novel is unfair, and yet you’re always screaming about having met someone abroad who lives in the next parish, and what a small world it is.”

You’ll find this book in lists of impossible crimes, both for the moving toyshop aspect, and for a murder which everyone present seems to have alibis for. The solution to the toyshop is quickly uncovered, and is sadly a bit disappointing. But the other crime is actually what Fen is investigating for the rest of the book. His tracking down and questioning of suspicious characters is all in pursuit of more information about this crime. This mini-story is simple and self contained enough that I could imagine it as a separate impossible crime short story, and its solution is more fitting for the short form too.

Though the characters do perform some proper investigation, their chief way of making progress is to accidentally bump into a suspect or witness while doing something else. Instead of these coincidences jolting me out of the story, I found them amusing. Its baseline level of wackiness is a lot higher than Murder’s a Swine which I reviewed previously, and Fen appears to face no consequences for any of his or his helpers’ actions throughout the story, including theft and inciting a mob. Given the fast pace and breezy tone it’s a very quick read and can be a bit of a page-turner, though more often to find out what flight of fancy Crispin will conjure up next than from concern for the fate of the characters.

Fen himself is at his most manic here, breaking the fourth wall, refusing to explain himself until the end, and insistent on keeping the police out of his investigation. See also all the crimes he commits/incites. The narration also points out the harsher justice-seeking side of his nature which isn’t always apparent.
As the story progresses he gathers more helpers around him, the main one being Richard Cadogan, who makes for an engaging and funny Watson. He can be quite inventive when he actually knows what’s going on, but when caught unawares he’s completely inept.
The third main character is a young shopgirl, Sally Carstairs, who occasionally gets a moment to shine but is more usually a damsel. It doesn’t help that one of her earlier actions is quite a stupid and naive one. However, her interactions with Richard work well, as her common-sense grounds his tendency to quote poetry and to overthink things.

A toyshop in Oxford, 1949.
From the Oxfordshire History Centre

Setting-wise I think this really excels – this may have been boosted by the fact that I was reading the book while staying in Oxford. The chase scenes are fun to imagine when you actually know which streets the characters are haring down. Of course, there is a map, but being able to visualise the locations helps a lot. Crispin states that Oxford is “the likeliest progenitor of unlikely events and persons”, which is perhaps an attempt to cushion the bizarre set-pieces which the book rattles through. At times the book unexpectedly slows down to take in the view, or to ponder the crime of murder or what it means to be a poet. In such an eclectic book this doesn’t really feel out of place. Crispin is also perfectly capable of raising the tension and evoking fear, especially in the famous ending set-piece which was borrowed for a Hitchcock movie.

I’m not far enough into my reading of Edmund Crispin to judge his “best book”. It will be hard to top The Moving Toyshop for sheer exhuberance and inventiveness, but I’m sure there are Crispins that hang together better and have a more in-depth mystery. There is no moment of revelation here to pull all the madness into shape. In any case, something that must surely have been a pleasure to write is certainly a pleasure to read.

Other opinions:

Dead Yesterday
The Grandest Game in the World
The Green Capsule
In Search of the Classic Mystery
The Invisible Event – contains spoilers!

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. JJ

    The sheer energy of this one is pretty hard to top, though for my tastes Crispin wrote better overall novels — Love Lies Bleeding, Swan Song, The Case of the Gilded Fly — and was probably his most successful in the short story form. But this is perhaps Fen at his most pure, and as such the book is very difficult to take against. He’s a superb character, and when seen at full flight there’s no detective in the Golden Age (or since!) quite like him.

    1. Velleic

      I do love the short stories, but I don’t think they give Crispin enough space to work up to the manic energy of Toyshop. I’ve only read Gilded Fly and that was a long while ago so I’m looking forward to these other highlights.
      It’s true, Fen is a pretty unique character! Though I think John Sladek’s Thackeray Phin has something Fenlike about him, beyond the name which could well be a reference.

      1. JJ

        Good call on Thackeray Phin, the two definitely share some DNA. And perhaps a tailor.

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