Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispin

Years ago, Gareth Roberts recommended me The Moving Toyshop, written by Edmund Crispin in 1946; I've only just got round to reading it. As Gareth said, it's brilliant: a comic murder-mystery with the feel of The Avengers. I would not be surprised to discover that it was a huge influence on Douglas Adams (especially his Professor Chronotis stories) and Jonathan Creek.

Poet Richard Cadogan finds the dead body of a woman in a toyshop in Oxford, but when he returns with the police the toyshop is not there: instead, the building is a grocer's - and there is no sign of a body. The police assume Richard has made a mistake, so Richard calls his old friend Gervase Fen, Professor of English Language and Literature - and amateur sleuth. What follows is effectively a series of chases, with rich characters playing literary games as they dodge and weave through the arcane twists of the plot. It's a joyous, witty read and the wildest occurrences all turn out to have perfectly logical explanations.

At the end of the book, we learn that "the moving toyshop" is a term from The Rape of the Lock by Pope - a poet referred to earlier in the book in one of the many literary jokes. Rather than investigate the mystery, the police want to discuss Measure for Measure with Fen, who - whenever there's a pause - likes to play games listing unreadable books or bad plays. Crispin pokes fun at Philip Larkin (to whom the book is also dedicated), and even at himself and his chronicling of Fen's adventures.

The light humour neatly plays against moments of darkness and horror: the details of the murders, the shooting of a dog, even the jaded view of Oxford, full of arbitrary rules and abuses. The book's also packed with memorable set pieces: as well as the great gag of the moving toyshop itself, there are scenes in a dodgy old cinema, a college chapel where it's important that men and women use different doors, and a part of the river reserved for nude bathing. Wikipedia even claims - with little hard evidence - that,
"The book provided the source for the famous merry-go-round sequence at the climax of Alfred Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train. All the major elements of the scene — the two men struggling, the accidentally shot attendant, the out-of-control merry-go-round, the crawling under the moving merry-go-round to disable it — are present in Crispin's account, though Crispin received no screen credit for it."
"The Moving Toyshop", Wikipedia, retrieved 26 September 2013.
I had some quibbles: one character is dismissed as a suspect solely on the basis that she's a pretty young thing and not overly bright. She's one of only two women to have much of a speaking role in the whole book; another woman appears briefly being chatted up, and two other women are found dead.

Also striking is an archaic use of "slut". One character has:
"a daily slut who came to cook his meals and make a pretense of cleaning ... The slut, after a day occupied mainly with drinking stout and reading a novelette in the sitting-room, returned to her own house at eight o'clock."
Edmund Crispin, The Moving Toyshop (1946), p. 186.
But this is a delight of a book, and I'm thrilled to learn Fen has several more adventures...


Scott Andrews said...

Indeed he does, and the ones I've read are equally wonderful, especially Love Lies Bleeding, which revolves around the hunt for a copy of Love's Labours Won. I think I have spare copies of some of them - I'll try dig them out for you.

Anonymous said...

I'm a big fan of Crispin. It still annoys me that he only wrote nine novels. TOYSHOP is the undoubtedly the wackiest, but he managed to try out a surprisingly wide variety of different styles in a relatively short career. I've just finished re-reading his penultimate novel THE LONG DIVORCE which is far less madcap, but extremely gripping, and often very funny. TOYSHOP is unusual in its shortage of women, as he often has very strong female characters. The young village doctor in DIVORCE, not to mention the schoolgirls who help to solve the central puzzle in LOVE LIES BLEEDING.