Tag Archives: series sleuth

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.

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 Fen, given to using “out-of-date Americanisms,”  also has the habit of playing literature games when he’s waiting for something to happen: “Awful Lines from Shakespeare,“Detestable Characters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

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Murder of a Lady: Anthony Wynne (1931)

“The beginning of a murder, like the beginning of any other human enterprise, lies deep down in somebody’s mind-not necessarily in the mind of the person who actually kills.”

Murder of a Lady, another entry in the British Library Crime Classics series from Poisoned Pen Press takes us to a castle in Scotland, an aristocratic family ruled by tradition, a cast of characters who believe in local superstitions, and series amateur sleuth, a specialist in mental diseases, Dr. Hailey who takes snuff and sports an eyeglass.

Gloomy Duchlan Castle is the home of the Laird and his unmarried sister, Miss Gregor. Also living there are Mrs Eoghan Gregor, the wife of the heir–an army captain stationed in Ayrshire, their young son who is subject to fits, and a handful of old family retainers. Not exactly a list of people you would consider potential murderers, and yet murder does arrive when Miss Gregor is found, inside a locked bedroom with locked and barred windows, dead of a vicious wound.

murder of a lady

Dr Hailey is called to the scene of the crime, but when Inspector Dundas from Glasgow arrives, Hailey, who prefers to work alone (“my mind works on its own scents,”) and who doesn’t agree with Dundas’s “tactless” approach, backs off, but the body count rises, and Hailey finds himself deeply involved in an intriguing case. Hailey learns that while Miss Gregor possessed the reputation of a saint, now that she’s dead, an entirely new picture merges of a frustrated, childless woman who manipulated and controlled everyone around her. While she supposedly always acted from duty and on the perceived best interests of others, in reality, Miss Gregor inflicted her wounds in soft tones that soon grew unendurable.”

This is a ‘closed door’ mystery, and those who love the genre from The Golden Age of Detective fiction know what sort of complicated developments this story creates. In the case of Murder of a Lady, however, there’s also some wonderful psychological insights from our amateur sleuth as he makes observations about the crime and various suspects.

The really interesting crimes are those committed by people who, in ordinary circumstances, would have lived all their lives without apparent fault.

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My method is always to proceed from the people to the crime rather than from the crime to the people. And the person I take most interest in, as a rule, certainly in the present case, is the murdered man or woman. When you know everything there is to be known about a person who has been murdered, you know the identity of the murderer.

My favourite character is Inspector Barley, also from Glasgow–a man with a thespian flair, an admirer of Napoleon, who spouts French and Latin, rubs his pipe on his nose and has a disconcerting appearance. Here’s Dr Hailey’s first view of Barley:

Barley, who wore a black-and-white check dust-coat of terrific pattern, looked like a shop-walker and spoke like a deayed actor in a Strand public-house, but he detected another quality and warmed to it. Inspector Barley possessed pleasant grey eyes; his brow was fine, square and massive and he had eloquent hands. What a pity that he had dyed his hair with henna!

In the introduction, Martin Edwards states that Murder of a Lady is “an excellent example of the ‘impossible crime’ mystery,” and that author Anthony Wynne is a “long forgotten master of this ingenious form of detective puzzle.” Wynne, whose real name was Robert McNair Wilson (1882-1963) was a physician in his real life, so it’s no coincidence that Wynne’s great creation, Dr Hailey, has the same career. Indeed there’s another doctor in the story, a Doctor McDonald, an amateur artist, and Hailey, who makes wonderfully insightful comments throughout the book, has this to say about McDonald:

The medical profession, he reflected, is full of men who wish, all their lives, that they had never entered it. Yet very few of these doctors succeed in making their escape because, through they possess the temperaments of artists, they lack the necessary power of expression or perhaps the necessary craftsmanship. A practice makes too many demands on time and strength to be bedfellow with any enthusiasm.

I guessed the perp but not the method of murder, but ultimately it’s the novel’s insights that make it such a delight to read. After finishing and really enjoying this gem, I went looking at the author’s backlist. Some of these used copies run into the $100s. I’m hoping that someone takes Wynne’s work to the kindle.

Review copy

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The Glimpses of the Moon by Edmund Crispin

I lean more towards hard-boiled crime than cozy mysteries, but occasionally, I need a change of pace. The Glimpses of the Moon by Edmund Crispin is a cozy mystery with all the hallmark features: an amateur sleuth, murder in a bucolic village setting, and most of the violence off the page. In common with many cozies, The Glimpses of the Moon is also quite funny, and it’s no easy feat to mesh humour with murder, but author Edmund Crispin (1921-1978), whose real name was Robert Bruce Montgomery, manages to blend the two elements very neatly in a novel that is full of memorable scenes and characters. While many of the characters are caricatures–the types we’d expect to find in a dull, sleepy British village, others give the novel a unique flavor.

the glimpses of the moonIn The Glimpses of the Moon, Crispin’s series sleuth, Oxford don, Gervase Fen, on a sabbatical, rents a country cottage in Aller hamlet with the idea that the peaceful country life will be conducive to his research into “the post-war British novel.” The novel opens with Gervase enjoying a pint at the pub with one of the locals, the Major, when they are interrupted by a journalist named Padmore who is sniffing around, asking questions about a murder that took place two months earlier. Padmore, a bit of a rum character who has little experience covering crime, has written an almost-finished book on the murder of a local man, the very unsavoury and much disliked Routh, generally agreed to be a “horrible man.” beheaded by eccentric “mad as a hatter” loner Hagberd. While no one regrets Routh’s passing, there seems only to be speculation that it took this long for someone to finally kill this obnoxious and cruel man. The solution to the crime is apparently sewn up, and the police are satisfied that they’ve caught the killer. Much to Padmore’s dismay however, he discovers from the semi-lucid Gobbo (the modern-day equivalent to the village idiot), that Hagberd couldn’t have possibly killed Routh as Hagberd was chatting with Gobbo at the time of the murder.

Since this startling revelation occurs in the presence of both the major and Gervase Fen, the men initially try to establish whether or not Gobbo–hardly the most reliable man in the village–is correct or not. But a few casual interviews  only seem to cloud the matter, and then another headless corpse appears … horror of horrors… at the village fete!

The plot is loaded with colourful characters. Apart from Gobbo, there’s cleaner Mrs Bragg, “a big henna-ed woman who shrieked with happy laughter,” the very snobby Mrs Leeper-Foxe whose late husband left her a “fat income from factory farming,” an unworldly eccentric Rector who lives in a “huge, lowering mid-Victorian erection” called Y Wurry , and Ortrud, a sturdy, tireless German nymphomaniac who brings her lovers back as temporary lodgers to her husband’s pig farm. He, in the meantime, consoles himself with his pigs who appear to be named after heroines in Thomas Hardy novels.

An Amazonian woman almost as tall as her husband, she had great physical strength and an emphatic Junoesque figure. (“Those bosoms, don’t you know,” the Major had once pronounced, more in amazement than in admiration. “Prodigious things–dazzling-flesh-bulbs.”) Her inexpressive Nordic head combined dark eyebrows with cheese-coloured hair put together in a complicated bun at the back, like pallid worms transfixed in mid-orgy.

Until recently, Ortrud wasn’t the only man-eater in town. Local lass, Mavis Trent also had a reputation for taking lovers and dropping them, but she was found dead under somewhat strange circumstances. Is there a connection between the death of Mavis Trent and the murder of Routh? Here’s the Rector on the subject of Mavis–a woman he’s obviously thought about quite a bit:

“Mavis was a nympho, I suppose, but calling her that gives a wrong impression. She never seemed to flirt or ogle or any of that stuff. But then, she didn’t have to, or anyway, not obviously; she was just naturally cheerfully sexy, with a sort of built-in spontaneous come-hither which gave you the idea, very powerfully, that making love to her would be all fun and no complications. It was, too–or so I gather. Damn it, I was quite taken with the girl myself. Not that I’d have married her, of course (she didn’t seem interested in making a second marriage, come to that), and of course, me being a cleric and not approving of all this promiscuity anyway, there was no question of an affaire (besides you can’t stay properly fit if you keep fornicating all the time). Even so, I still got the impression that she wouldn’t have minded nabbing me, on a temporary basis,” said the Rector, with obvious gratification. “So you can see, she wasn’t what you’d call choosy.”

Edmund Crispin’s characters are a motley bunch who mingle due to proximity and yet while they all seem to inhabit their own little worlds,  they collide on a number of issues: animal cruelty (which seems an appropriate issue since the story is set in the countryside) and sexuality. It’s as though unleashed in the countryside, people in and around the village of Burraford have resorted to their animalistic natures and all social rules are ignored–not by everyone, of course, but this ‘rule breaking’ seems to have led to murder and Gervase becomes embroiled in the hunt for the killer while trying to write his book and care for all the animals that reside at the cottage he rents. One of the complaints I read about Crispin’s work is that some readers found his allusions a bit tedious. In The Glimpses of the Moon, Gervase Fen is constantly rattling off names of authors (muttering to himself), but I enjoyed these intrusions. On a note of caution, however, foreign readers may find the small patches of dialect impenetrable.

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