Thursday, March 08, 2018

"The Moving Toyshop"

Today's reading: The Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispin, first published in 1946. I find this book very funny, almost a send-up of the more conventional British detective novels such as those by Dorothy Sayers or Agatha Christie. It's also a kind of send-up of books about pompous academics: the setting is Oxford and the amateur detectives are a literature don, Gervase Fen, and a poet named Cadogan. Not quite as funny as a Bertie Wooster novel... but close. And furthermore, it is actually suspenseful.

Beyond the humor about people and situations, the plot of this tale is so improbable that even the characters in the story comment on it:
"'I don't think this is going to work,' Mr Beavis remarked with some apprehension.
"'It will work,' Fen responded confidently, 'because no one expects this sort of trick outside a book.'" (p. 147)
The novel takes place in a single day, beginning with the poet's negotiation for an advance from his publisher in London because he needs a vacation, and continuing as he takes a train to Oxford for this needed break. His train trip is interrupted because there are no further trains from a station almost to Oxford. Thus he has to hitchhike with a strangely literate truck driver (who gets back into the story later, quite improbably). As he walks toward the center of town, he randomly enters a toyshop whose door is standing open, and he witnesses the result of a murder. 

Thus the tale begins. Cadogan enlists Gervase Fen, Oxford literary don, to help find the culprit. They engage in a rather madcap rush to understand both the disappearance of the murder victim and the disappearance of the toyshop where the murder took place, and to find the guilty perps. And indeed, the day of crazy risks and chases on foot, by bicycle, in Fen's own sports car, in a stolen car, in the previously mentioned truck, and even by punt on the river, is wrapped up by the following evening. What classical unity!

I often notice how a detective story can be punctuated by stops for meals -- such pacing helps to ground the detectives in a kind of real world. With each meal, we see how time is passing. Descriptions of food and eating places can reveal insights about the character of the detectives. Meal times in The Moving Toyshop come off in a somewhat off-beat way. Fen and Cadogan come close to eating at least a couple of times, but instead keep chasing after and confronting a larger and larger collection of bizarre and eccentric suspects.

First they miss lunch in an Oxford dining hall thanks to being briefly kidnapped by a couple of mysterious thugs involved in the crime cover-up. After an escape from this peril, they reach Fen's Oxford chambers:
"Fen, who had been arranging about tea for them all with an elderly, mirthless individual who proved to be his scout, returned to the room, unlocked a drawer in his untidy desk, and took out a small automatic pistol. For a moment conversation was still: something of the implication of that act was borne in on everyone present. 
"'I'm sorry I shall have to desert you,' he said, 'But this interview really won't wait....' 
"Curiosity, and the desire for tea, were conducting a mimic battle in Cadogan's brain; curiosity emerged triumphant. 'I'm coming too,' he announced." (p. 113)
Another failed chance to eat! Finally, they do manage to have a bit of food later that afternoon:
"Cadogan had finished the buttered scones and was eating a piece of angel-cake. 'The Episode of the Guzzling Bard,' said Fen as he lit a cigarette." (p. 128) 
And just as he finishes eating, one of the possible witnesses they have been seeking turns up in the very same café! The pursuit of suspects and discovery of more and more surprises continues until the improbable wrap-up. Read it and chortle!

Edmund Crispin was the pseudonym of Robert Bruce Montgomery (1921-1978), who wrote scripts and film scores for quite a few non-detective films, and also an entire series about Gervase Fen. He is quite obscure compared to the still-popular authors of the Golden Age of crime fiction before World War II. Still, his books, especially this one, make it onto various lists of "best detective novels." Though Agatha Christie's work, for example, continues to be turned into film on a regular basis, I can find only one such treatment of The Moving Toyshop, a TV show aired in 1964, listed on IMDB -- but with no available way to watch it. 

Note: Authors of Crispin's era whose detectives stopped to eat while detecting include Christie, Sayers, Georges Simenon, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Rex Stout, and many others. Detective stories throughout the 20th century continued to feature meals in one form or another.  I've written about this often! In much more recent "cozy" mysteries, this trope has been forced into something different, which I don't admire nearly as much. 


Debra Eliotseats said...

When you mentioned Sayers, I said , "I know that name." Yes! I didn't know her for her detective books but for translating Dante (which I taught to less than enthusiastic HS students many moons ago! Good review!

Mae Travels said...

@Debra -- Thanks for your comment! Dorothy Sayers' detective novels are totally classic British vintage fiction, and still well worth reading. Her main detective is Lord Peter Wimsey, an upper class idle rich amateur, but still amusing.

best... mae at

Angela said...

This sounds like the kind of book I would really like. And I love books that were written in that time period - the humor always seems to be so smart and charming!

Deb Nance at Readerbuzz said...

Breaks for eating are a big part of sitcoms and soap operas, too. I notice that people rarely complete their meals in either.

Beth F said...

I love the Lord Peter and Harriet Vane books!

wisps of words said...

Thank you for commenting on my blog.

Thank you for this delightful sounding reading suggestion!

Deb in Hawaii said...

This does sound like a run book. I'll look for it. I do appreciate detectives who take the time to stop for a meal and authors who take the time to describe what they are eating. ;-)

jama said...

The Moving Toyshop sounds like a hoot! Enjoyed the review, adding the book to my TBR list.

Tina said...

Putting this one on my list for sure. Mae, you ought to link up with Joy’s British Isles Friday this upcoming week. I think folks old like to be introduced to this story. I try and link every Friday. Check her out here:

Amy said...

Putting this one on my TBR list. Sounds like an entertaining read!

Joy Weese Moll said...

I read a bunch of mysteries set in Oxford years ago, before blogs or Goodreads. I was sure I'd read this, but now that I read your summary, I'm pretty sure that I didn't. It must have been on my TBR but I never got to it. I'll have to add it again -- sounds fun!

Thanks to Tina for suggesting this post for British Isles Friday and thanks, Mae, for joining our British link party. I'm thrilled to be reminded of this book.

Michelle Ann said...

I enjoyed this book when I read it many years ago, but thought the moving toyshop itself was ludicrous, and unnecessary for the novel. Then I discovered that the title is part of a quote from Alexander Pope's poem 'The Rape of the Lock', who when mentioning the inconstancy of women, used the lines:

With varying Vanities, from every Part,
They shift the moving Toyshop of their Heart;

I think Crispin liked the quote and was determined to write a book with this title. Unfortunately I can no longer remember if there is an inconstant woman in the novel!