If you’ve listened to the latest episode of ‘Tea or Books?’ then you’ll have heard that I’ve been reading The Moving Toyshop (1946) by Edmund Crispin. It’s always nice to read something that’s been on my shelves for a while, and the note inside the front tells me that I bought it in Edinburgh on 23 September 2009. Eventually somebody chose it for my book group (I don’t even think it was me) so I finally got around to it.
The Moving Toyshop is, in short, a very good novel and a rather poor murder mystery. And I don’t even think this is my usual comparing-things-to-Agatha foible. But more on that anon… The premise is undeniably fab. Richard Cadogan has wandered to Oxford, and somehow finds himself in a toyshop in the middle of the night on ‘Iffley Road’ (which he has put where Cowley Road is, according to the map in the front – yessir, I have local knowledge, since I live off Iffley Road). In said toyshop there is, it turns out, a murdered woman – but before Cadogan can do much about it, he is knocked on the head and put in a cupboard. (That becomes something of a motif in the novel, incidentally; people are forever being knocked on the head and put in cupboards.) He escapes in the morning, but when he returns later… the toyshop has gone.
It’s a brilliant idea, and it’s something of a pity that the resulting plot doesn’t live up to it. Ultimately (I think) this doesn’t stop The Moving Toyshop being a brilliant book – but it is a pity nonetheless. Cadogan enlists the help of reckless Gervase Fen, a witty Professor of English Language and Literature who jets about in his car, flirting and slighting left, right, and centre, and between them they try to unearth the culprit.
Things quickly become far more complicated, and we get into a quagmire of tracking down various legatees to a will, poetic code names and all, where coincidences abound and solutions are seldom interrogated too closely. The characters even talk about how often coincidences happen in real life, and that we never comment on them there… well, that’s as maybe, but even so I wouldn’t be certain that (when needing to find a woman with a spotty dog) that the first woman with a spotty dog that I saw was definitely the one I needed. And the ultimate solution to the moving toyshop is riddled with improbabilities.
But, as I say, this scarcely matters. What makes this novel such a delight is how funny it is. Neither Cadogan nor Fen are particularly sympathetic characters, but before have a great way with words and aren’t afraid of sarcasm. Their teasing of each other, somewhere between affectionate and barbed, is also echoed by the narrative. Crispin throws in lots of description wonders, such as this:
The ‘Mace and Sceptre’ is a large and quite hideous hotel which stands in the very centre of Oxford and which embodies, without apparent shame, almost every architectural style devised since the times of primitive man.
I’m not sure which actual hotel this was referring to, if any, but I do hope it was The Mitre, where my book group meets. That would be wonderfully appropriate.
I didn’t write down many instances, but this sort of thing recurs throughout the book, making it a patchwork of gleeful sentences that more than excuse the plot. Some of the most fun came when Cadogan was talking about poetry or Fen was talking about academic English. I particularly loved Crispin’s riff on a lecture that Fen gave, and the undergraduates’ longing for opportunities for wild conjecture. Oh, and the policeman who always wants to ask Fen about Measure for Measure! It’s all such fun, particularly for anybody who has studied English literature – though a late speech in the novel is quite moving about the creation of literature, somehow without feeling out of place.
Also, speaking personally, it’s such fun to read a novel about the city where I live. I’ve actually read surprisingly few novels set in Oxford, given how many there are out there, and certainly not many where a knowledge of the layout of streets is useful. Plus it meant we got lines like this:
Oxford is the one place in Europe where a man may do anything, however eccentric, and arouse no interest or emotion at all.
I can’t speak for all of Europe, but this is certainly still true in Oxford. I long ago learned, particularly, that people could wear anything at all on the street – from ball gown to horse costume – without anybody turning a hair. Oxford’s acceptance of eccentricity and general live-and-let-live attitude is one of the reasons I’ve found it impossible to leave yet.
Apparently all of Crispin’s novels were detective novels – though detection is rather a kind word for what Fen does. I would rather he had written a different sort of novel, where he could concentrate on the comedy and forget about plot, but perhaps others of his are more watertight in this respect. Either way, this was a complete delight, and I’m glad it came off my shelf after 5.5 years.