Tag Archives: Oxford

The Moving Toyshop: Edmund Crispin (1946)

“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-moving-toyshop

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 Fen, given to using “out-of-date Americanisms,”  also has the habit of playing literature games when he’s waiting for something to happen: “Awful Lines from Shakespeare,“Detestable Characters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. 

Review copy

 

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Death on the Cherwell: Mavis Doriel Hay (1935)

“But look here, aren’t there some people called police–or don’t you have them in Oxford?”

Death on the Cherwell from author Mavis Doriel Hay is a light-hearted crime novel centered on the murder of the much disliked Miss Denning, the Bursar of the all-female Persephone College in Oxford. The book’s excellent introduction from Stephen Booth gives an overview of the author’s life, stating that Persephone College is recognizable as St Hilda’s–one of two women’s colleges on the Cherwell. Mavis Doriel Hay attended St Hilda’s at a time when women were not “eligible for degrees,” and as Booth notes, “in the circumstance, it is understandable that one of the themes of Death on the Cherwell is a prejudice against women.”

death on the cherwell

The novel opens on a January afternoon with several female undergraduates gathering for a meeting on the top of the boathouse roof. This opening sets the tone for the story with its emphasis on the enthusiasm and energy of the young women:

Undergraduates, especially those in their first year, are not, of course, quite sane or quite adult. It is sometimes considered that they are not quite human.

Emerging excitedly from the ignominious status of schoolgirl or schoolboy, and as yet unsteadied by the ballast of responsibility which, later on, a livelihood-earning career will provide, they enter the university like beings born again with the advantage of an undimmed memory of their former lives. Inspirited by their knowledge of the ways in which authority may be mocked, they are at the same time quite ridiculously uplifted by the easy possibility of achieving local fame in the limited university world during the next few years.

As the young women, with their ringleader Sally, gather on the roof of the boathouse, the Bursar’s canoe comes floating down the Cherwell. At first, the canoe appears to be empty, and sensing something wrong, the undergraduates pull the boat to shore. The Bursar is lying in the canoe–dead. She’s been drowned but then placed back in the canoe.

The genial Detective Inspector Braydon from Scotland Yard arrives to solve the crime, and while his methods of detection are fairly standard, Sally and her friends decide to do some sleuthing of their own–ostensibly to ‘protect’ the “Yugo-Slav” student Draga, who stands out as eccentric, ‘different,’ and a suspect. Draga, though, is clearly a pretext for Sally and her friends to become involved in this pleasant romp of a murder mystery.

The book bogs down a bit as the inspector tries to establish alibis, but overall the story is well done. There are references to Oxford of the 30s (Blackwell whose idea “was to run a bookshop and actually to sell books”), “late leave,” and the social relationships between male and female students. There’s one very funny scene in which a male student tries to plug his poetry book using various tactics, there’s also an insanely misogynistic character and many references regarding attitudes to women.

“Why do most women get murdered?” asked Dumps.

“Unfortunately they don’t,” Coniston informed him.

“But most of those who do–“

“Intrigue!” Owen hazarded. “Some wretched man gets involved with too many of them and has to remove one or two.”

Review copy

 

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Dirty Tricks by Michael Dibdin

One good reason for readers to blog is to pick up book tips, and this exact scenario occurred recently when I visited Kevin’s blog and noted that no less than two other bloggers: Kim and Max both recommended Michael Dibdin’s Dirty Tricks (and yes it’s been made into a television film!). Kim compared Dirty Tricks to Henry Sutton’s Get Me Out of Here, and since that book was one of my favourite reads of 2011, that sealed the deal.

Dirty Tricks is narrated by a forty-year-old Oxford EFL teacher who pedals his “tenth-hand push-bike” from his shared flat in the slums of East Oxford to his pathetically underpaid job at the Oxford International Language College. It’s here that the narrator meets a married couple, the upwardly mobile and socially pretentious Parsons, accountant Dennis, “a wine bore of stupendous proportions,” and his sexually rapacious, PE teacher wife, Karen–a pencil-thin woman with a “large, predatory mouth, like the front-end grille on a cheap flashy motor.” After feeding Dennis’s wine snobbery, the narrator finds himself invited to a dinner party at the Parsons’ suburban home with the “lumpenbourgeoisie,” and he embarks on a sordid affair with Karen in which the biggest thrill comes not from orgasm but from the thrill of blatant coupling right under Dennis’s nose. After rubbing elbows with members of the consumer-driven middle-class, the narrator gets a taste of the good life, and following a holiday with the Parsons in a villa in the Dordogne, he decides it’s about time he moved up in the world…..

I wanted the lifestyle which other people of my age and education enjoyed but which I had forfeited because of the wayward direction given my life by the humanistic propaganda I was exposed to in my youth.  I didn’t crave fabulous riches or meaningless wealth, I simply wanted my due.

And just how Dibdin’s unnamed sociopathic protagonist decides to get his “due” is the subject of the novel, and since the tale is told by an unreliable narrator of classic proportions who refuses to play by society’s rules, Dirty Tricks is both transgressive and darkly comic.  The opening paragraphs of Dirty Tricks resembles a confession, but it’s not of course; this is a justification:

First of all, let me just say that everything I am going to tell you is the complete and absolute truth. Well yes, I would say that, wouldn’t I? And since I’ve just sworn an oath to this effect, it might seem pointless to offer further assurances, particularly since I can’t back them up. I can’t call witnesses, I can’t produce evidence. All I can do is tell you my story. You’re either going to believe me or you’re not.

Nevertheless, I am going to tell you the truth. Not because I’m incapable of lying. On the contrary, my story is riddled with deceptions, evasions, slanders and falsifications of every kind, as you will see. Nor do I expect you to believe me because my bearing is sincere and my words plausible. Such things might influence the judges of my own country, where people still pretend to believe in the essential niceness of the human race–or at least pretend to pretend.

Thus begins the narrator’s hilarious confessional narrative in which he explains and justifies his actions. He tells us his side of this sordid tale of adultery, murder, and social-climbing while waffling on the precise version of events until he creates one he intends to stick to.  Part of the reason the novel works so well is that all of the characters are unpleasant, and when the homicidal EFL teacher, a seething mass of envy with a self-admitted “yen for married women” is unleashed in suburbia, the results are explosively funny and wicked. Dibdin takes us deftly into the mind of the sociopathic narrator, and here he is applying grandiosity to murder

It is striking that at a time when just about every other human value has been called into question, the value of life is still universally accepted as an absolute. Despite this, I have no qualms about admitting to men of your culture and experience that the demise of Dennis Parsons seemed to me to be jolly desirable.

With this narrator, Dibdin creates an awful human being who’s always full of unpleasant surprises and whose base actions are unspeakably low and self-serving. Now matter how awful the narrator is, I found myself laughing out loud at his twisted, sick thinking. Just when I thought the narrator had sunk to his lowest behaviour, there were endless disgraceful actions in store.

I’ve always made a point of borrowing money from women early in the relationship so as to give them a hold over me. It also helps when the time comes to break off the affair, because you can talk about the money instead of feelings and love and messy, painful stuff like that.

In true sociopathic style, the narrator ambushes the reader with his twisted logic. Here he is discussing the past of one of his EFL students, Garcia:

Trish had given me a brief account of the allegations against him, but just to be on the safe side I phoned Amnesty International, posing as a researcher for a TV current affairs programme. Their response was unequivocal, a detailed catalogue of union leaders, students, newspaper editors, civil rights workers,  Jews, feminists, priests and intellectuals tortured and murdered, a whole politico-socio-economic subgroup targeted and taken out. I was dismayed. With a record like that, Garcia might well regard the menial task I had to offer him as beneath his dignity.

In this extremely entertaining novel, our narrator leaves a trail of revenge, death and disaster and yet always sees himself as the victim–a simple man who merely tried to turn his life around, and as the crimes rack up, his justifications become more complex, skewed and hilariously wicked. Author Michael Dibdin’s journey into the mind of a sociopath would be chilling if not for the humour, and for this reader the very best parts of this terrific novel occur when the narrator mimics the emotional responses he knows society expects of him.

For Kim’s review, go here. Kim also liked Henry Sutton’s Get Me Out of Here.

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Filed under Dibdin Michael, Fiction