“One never knows with poets.”
In Edmund Crispin’s wonderfully funny crime novel, The Moving Toyshop, Poet Richard Cadogan pressures his publisher for an advance on his next book of poems, and so with fifty pounds in his hot little hands, he hightails it to Oxford for a much needed holiday. Having missed the last train, he hitchhikes into Oxford, and arriving late in town, he stumbles into a toyshop. Imagine his shock when he finds a dead woman inside the building, but before he can call for help, he’s coshed on the head. When he wakes up stuffed in a cupboard, he dashes off to the police, and the police return, with Cadogan, to the scene of the crime. The toyshop has turned into a grocery shop, there’s no dead body, and the police dismiss Cadogan’s story. Cadogan decides to call upon the assistance of Gervase Fen, assistant professor at St Christopher’s College.
The energetic, indefatigable Gervase Fen, who roars around Oxford in a red “battered” sports car named LILY CHRISTINE III, decides to investigate, refusing to turn the case over to the police. In fact he spends most of the book avoiding them with the exception of frequent phone calls to the Chief Inspector who only wants to discuss Shakespeare, but these short conversations always end with Fen hanging up.
“Gervase, it’s a common view that Measure for Measure is about chastity–“
“Very common indeed,” said Fen. “Quite reprehensible. Goodbye.” He rang off.
In his efforts to solve the crime, Fen rustles up a band of assistants including the lorry driver who reads D.H Lawrence and an amorous undergraduate whose success with women comes down to plying them with chocolates.
There are so many wonderful scenes in this literature-loving crime novel. Fen, given to using “out-of-date Americanisms,” also has the habit of playing literature games when he’s waiting for something to happen: “Awful Lines from Shakespeare,” “Detestable Characters in Fiction,” and “Unreadable Books.” In one lively scene at the pub, a debate rages over the merits of Jane Austen, and the clues to the identities of possible murder suspects are found embedded in the nonsense rhymes of Edward Lear. Fen breaks the ‘fourth wall’ when he jokes about thinking about titles for Edmund Crispin’s books.
The Moving Toyshop is a romp. Although by the end of the book there are several dead bodies, our heroes are never really in danger, and they are clearly having a great time–well the inexhaustible Fen is having fun, but then he doesn’t appear to have any self-doubt or an iota of fear. The plot barrels along at a breakneck pace, but it’s the author’s wonderful, lightening sense of humour that elevate this novel and make it really something extraordinary. Here are just two examples:
At one point a policeman stops Fen and Cadogan as they pursue a young blonde suspected of involvement in the murder through the streets of Oxford:
The constable scratched his nose. “Well now,” he said. “We’re all for love in the Force, but fair’s fair, you know. One of you at a time, and no stampeding.”
And at another point, Cadogan’s publisher, who doesn’t want to give the poet an advance in order for him to take a holiday, offers a few days at his country home instead:
“Perhaps you’d like to stay with me for a few days at Caxton’s Folly?”
“Can you give me adventure, excitement, lovely women?”
“These picaresque fancies,” said Mr Spode. “Of course, there’s my wife…” He would not have been wholly unwilling to sacrifice his wife to the regeneration of an eminent poet, or, for the matter of that, to anyone for any reason. Elsie could be very trying at times.
The Moving Toyshop is book 3 in Edmund Crispin’s (real name Robert Mongomery 1921-1978) Gervase Fen series. I’ve also read The Glimpses of the Moon, book 9 in the series, and strangely, Fen seems to be a much more developed character in book 3 than in book 9. JJ at The Invisible Event says that The Moving Toyshop is the best of Edmund Crispin’s Gervase Fen series.