This is a nicely lived-in 1958 Penguin edition with a frankly hilarious author photo on the back. The front cover has a little cigarette burn on one edge and it’s stamped Pocket Libri Milano L. 300 on the title page. I’ve had it for a while and have no idea where I got it originally.
The Moving Toyshop is the only Edmund Crispin novel to make the CWA top 100. Now I love Crispin’s work, but I have to say I think this is one of the weaker ones. The Long Divorce and Buried for Pleasure are his best, for my money.
Still, as an example of his work, it is a decent introduction. The plot is deliberately preposterous, hinging on the unlikely will of an eccentric spinster and a local solicitor with an equally unlikely past, but you don’t really read Crispin for his plots, you read him for the verve of his writing. It always feels like he’s having a great time with the detective Gervase Fen and his friends and adversaries. In this case, Richard Cadogan, ‘by common consent one of the three most eminent English poets’, jumps off the page immediately.
Bored of St John’s Wood, and after browbeating his publisher into giving him a £50 advance, Cadogan impetuously decides he needs a holiday in Oxford but ends up stranded at a nearby station with no option but to walk through the night to get there. On the way, he discovers a toyshop with a still-open door and goes in, meaning to alert the owners. Instead, he discovers the corpse of an old lady and is immediately knocked unconscious by an unseen assailant. In the morning, he makes his way to a police station to report a murder, but when he returns to the scene with a constable, the entire toyshop has vanished along with the corpse. Luckily, he is acquainted with the famous academic-detective Gervase Fen, and is able to call on his help.
There are a few features to any Fen novel which you need to know about.
The first is there are always a few ‘dictionary words’ (a feature Fen books
share with those featuring fellow Oxford resident Morse). For example, suilline*.
The second is occasional forays into self-reference and in-jokes. At a
fork in the road, Fen opts to go left as, after all, the book will be
published by Gollancz. At one point, he muses on what Crispin will call this adventure.
Third, great cameos. Everyone’s got something to say, even the driver who gives Cadogan a lift.
‘Books. I’m a great reader, I am. Not poetry. Love stories and murder
books. I joined one o’ them’ – he heaved a long sigh; with vast effort
his mind laboured and brought forth – ‘circulatin’ libraries.’ He
brooded darkly. ‘But I’m sick of it now. I’ve read all that’s any good
Fourth, Fen’s driving is hilarious. Lily Christine III is the best car in fiction.
‘A red object shot down the Woodstock Road. It was an extremely small, vociferous and battered sports car. Across its bonnet was scrawled in large white letters the words LILY CHRISTINE III. A steatopygic** nude in chromium leaned forward at a dangerous angle from the radiator cap.’
The final part of the book dissolves into a series of Benny Hill-style chases across Oxford. They’re fun, and well written, but ultimately not especially rewarding. There is a Golden Age fair-play mystery in here, but as I say above, if you like the sound of Fen, my recommendation would be to start elsewhere. Vintage Books is publishing them all at the moment.
The Moving Toyshop is also reviewed at A Penguin a Week, which is well worth a visit if you enjoy old Penguins and bookshops. Which I do.
Final destination: Back to my bookshelf.
* Of, or pertaining to, the hog family. Don’t tell me you knew that.
** Look it up for yourself