“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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.