The Moving Toyshop (1946) by Edmund Crispin

The Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispin

6 stars (6/10 stars)

“Gervase, I’ve lost a toyshop.”

 Poet Richard Cadogan came to Oxford looking for a change of scene, but this isn’t exactly what he had in mind. Arriving on the outskirts of the city late at night, he happens upon an unlocked toyshop with a dead woman inside. When Cadogan returns with police, not only is the body gone—so is the toyshop.

A baffled Cadogan turns to his old friend, Oxford don and amateur detective Gervase Fen, to solve this most unusual case. A disappearing corpse is one thing, but a disappearing crime scene is something else altogether

The Moving Toyshop is an amusing romp that doesn’t quite live up its irresistible premise. I mean, of course it doesn’t. It’s such fun for the reader to speculate about what might have happened that it’s easy to get carried away by imagination. Realistically, though, there are only so many ways of moving a toyshop, and Edmund Crispin chooses the least satisfying option, relying on a series of slapstick chase scenes to bridge the gap. Upon first reading this book years ago, I was so totally disgusted by this that it overshadowed everything else. Rereading with more tempered expectations, however, The Moving Toyshop has more than enough other charms to make it worth a spin.

The Moving Toyshop by Edmund CrispinThe beginning is a little shaky; there’s nothing endearing about Cadogan shaking down his publisher for extra money because he wants a vacation and doesn’t feel like working for it. Even stranger is that he pines for a holiday abroad, but settles for Oxford instead. Nonetheless, the opening scene does establish Cadogan as both entitled enough to poke around an unlocked shop at night just because, and also as a curious idealist who would need to ferret out the truth about the situation. The murder is surprisingly brutal, and it makes a deep impression on Cadogan. The fact that he takes the crime so seriously helps overcome some of the bad impression that he makes at the start.

Richard Cadogan and Gervase Fen make a funny and fallible detective team as they try to figure out how a toyshop turned into a grocer’s overnight, with the neighbors swearing there has never been a toyshop on that street. (They are able to pinpoint the location pretty precisely, because, as Fen observes with disgust, someone has been sick outside the gate. “That was me,” says Cadogan. In my college town, that would hardly narrow it down, but never mind.) Their quest is complicated by the fact that the police consider Cadogan to be a suspicious character himself.

Fen is an eccentric professor of English at the fictional college of St. Christopher, tearing about the city in his automobile Lily Christine III. (“How they failed to kill or mutilate the A. A. man at the junction with the Banbury road Cadogan was never able to imagine; they left him staring after them, too horrified even to call out.”) Academic and criminal interests are always mingling enjoyably, as when Fen tries to influence the Shakespeare-mad chief constable to take the heat off Cadogan, to no avail.

“But it’s Richard Cadogan. The poet.”

“I couldn’t care less if it was the Pope…Anyway, if he’s innocent it’ll be all right.”

“But he isn’t innocent.”

“Oh, well, in that case only the Home Secretary can save him…Gervase, has it ever occurred to you that Measure for Measure is about the problem of Power?”

“Don’t bother me with trivialities now,” said Fen, annoyed, and rang off.

On other occasions, however, he is able to corral students and even a philosophical truck driver into a ragged band of amateur sleuths, with delightful results. Crispin’s puckish humor is given free reign here, leading to some wonderfully daft flights of fancy.

“Murder Stalks the University,” said Fen. “The Blood on the Mortarboard. Fen Strikes Back.”

“What’s that you’re saying?” Cadogan asked in a faint, rather gurgling voice.

“My dear fellow, are you all right? I was making up titles for Crispin.

For most of its length, The Moving Toyshop is a fast-paced, well constructed comic mystery. Unfortunately, the ending just goes on and on. The final climax is so effective that Hitchcock pinched it, but the excitement is diluted by the fact that there have already been three other climaxes already. It’s as though Crispin realized he had revealed the identity of the killer too soon and simply needed to fill up some pages. 

Long hailed as a landmark of the mystery genre, The Moving Toyshop may be a victim of its own success. Expectations are always higher for a classic. Reading it again without the pressure of that classic status, I found The Moving Toyshop to be a charmingly flighty mystery that makes the most of its Oxford setting. Even if not the greatest of all time, it’s well worth a read.

Second Opinions

Crossexamining Crime

Overall this is was a fun and funny read, with an eventful plot and fast pace, orchestrated by an engaging central sleuth, who I think everyone wishes they had as their tutor at university.

The Green Capsule

This is light stuff, but it’s a quick fun read if you’re willing to not take it seriously.  To that extent I’d compare it with The Frightened Stiff by Kelley Roos – a fun enough read but nothing that’s really going to stick with you.

In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel

There are so many problems with the mystery that I really should be much harsher on this one, but it’s a really fun read and, as such, it’s Recommended.

The Invisible Event: Spoiler Warning Post

I think I just have such positive memories of this one – and such faulty ones, as we’ll get to – that reading it again and finding it so middle of the road was a real surprise.  This was among the first non-Christie GAD I read, and it spurred me on to try more of the genre…whereas now I reckon I’d delay significantly before digging further if this was recommended as a high point of the form.

Availability

The Moving Toyshop  is available in paperback and ebook formats from Bloomsbury in the US and HarperCollins in the UK.


13 thoughts on “The Moving Toyshop (1946) by Edmund Crispin

  1. We find ourselves in agreement once again! This is fun, but slight, and while it benefits from a slightly disconnected style of telling, that very same disconnectedness leads to a lack of legitimate investment. It’s also just not as funny as I remembered…and, yes, the method of moving the toyshop is unforgivably dull.

    More importantly, though, how in the hell did I let Ben (@ The Green Capsule) get away with such a “Meh” opinion about The Frightened Stiff?!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Funny that we both started from opposite ends of the spectrum (loving vs. hating it), only to meet in the middle. The comedy is definitely the kind you either love or hate, and it mostly worked for me, but there did not need to be four different action sequences at the end. I also enjoyed that it explored sides of Oxford that aren’t normally seen, like the nude beach (!!) and that awful cinema. But Crispin prepares the reader for this great impossible mystery, only to dismiss the toyshop in a perfunctory manner. And then it turns out that the murder is only “impossible” because the suspects claim they were in the other room at the time. I mean, honestly.

      Yes, you should definitely go after infidels who don’t appreciate The Frightened Stiff, and leave alone people who haven’t yet read it. (In my defense, it’s in the other room, and therefore, according to the logic of The Moving Toyshop, impossible to access.)

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      1. Oh, did your version have only four action sequences? Must’ve been abridged… 😛 I can see Crispin writing this as a response to his previous book, Holy Disorders, which is decidedly more staid (not really the word I want…) in its gloomy tone and pacing; interesting that he then over-corrects with the subsequent book, Swan Song, which is also then a bit too sombre. Maybe he’s just not as funny as we’ve been told, eh?

        Defence? Defence? There’s nothing to defend — “not having read a book” is a fact, not a perspective. Wen you get to it, I’d love to know what you make of it — it’s one of those books that I maintain will tell you whether someone is going to like GAD. At least, I did think that, until Ben chuffed it up for everyone…

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      2. Four at the end, I lost count of the others…Poor Crispin, he could never quite get it right, except maybe Frequent Hearses, which is pretty lively without going off the rails. I’ve read most of his stuff (though not all) and obviously liked it well enough to keep reading, but there’s always something a little off about it.

        One of these days I’ll stop wasting my life and read The Frightened Stiff but who knows when.

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  2. Yeah, The Moving Toyshop is one of those once timeless classics which had its status severely reduced over the past 10-15 years by an influx of new readers. I liked it as a well-done example of the comedic chase mystery novel, but Crispin has definitely written and plotted better detective stories. However, the only truly disappointment he ever produced was the very late The Glimpses of the Moon. That one would have been more interesting had it remained as tantalizing, unpublished and lost manuscript.

    More importantly, though, how in the hell did I let Ben (@ The Green Capsule) get away with such a “Meh” opinion about The Frightened Stiff?!

    So can we finally gibbet a heretic?

    By the way, I’ve to take credit for bolstering the profile of The Frightened Stiff as a (minor) classic. I’ve made so many people read it. Even Ho-Ling has reviewed it. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Isn’t it interesting how the canon changes over time? I think this is actually pretty good as a comedy, but reading it for the first time expecting an amazing detective story was a disappointment. Crispin is not terribly interested in his mystery plots, so it’s just a matter of whether you find the comedy funny or not. The Moving Toyshop‘s classic status makes you realize how much influence early gatekeepers like Haycraft, Barzun, and Symons really had in the pre-internet era. I suspect Crispin made the grade over similar comic mystery writers (like, oh, say, Kelley Roos) because he spreads a veneer of intellectualism over the zaniness that makes it all seem a little smarter than it really is.

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      1. Not from me, as I haven’t read it yet! (Though I’ve read others by Roos that are just as funny as Crispin, with tighter plots.) But based on the blogosphere, these days The Frightened Stiff is definitely more of a must-read classic than The Moving Toyshop.

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      2. But based on the blogosphere, these days The Frightened Stiff is definitely more of a must-read classic than The Moving Toyshop.

        Absolutely! The Frightened Stiff is one of the very few comedic mysteries that actually made me laugh and has a first-rate plot. In my opinion, the greatest mystery novel to have been rediscovered by the Rue Morgue Press.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. The Moving Toyshop was a bit of a disappointment for me give its reputation. That’s kind of a shame though, as it has an interesting little mystery tucked towards the end. It’s funny that the “moving toyshop” bit gets all of the attention (understandable given the name), when really it’s the question of how the murder was committed that is the real puzzle.

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    1. The murder method is clever; it’s just a bit annoying to be promised impossible crimes, then given nothing of the kind! I would almost rather have something like Buried for Pleasure, which is upfront about being largely a comedy and doesn’t make any big claims about the mystery.

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