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Locked Room Reviews:
Edmund Crispin: The Moving Toyshop
A grand Golden Age mystery farce!
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I first read ‘The Moving Toyshop’ many years ago and left it with very fond memories, which is why I gave it a full five stars on our Locked Room Edmund Crispin page. Now, I have returned for a second read of this great classic, older, maybe wiser, and definitely more confused! True, this is a delightful farce, with an express train plot that never stops for a second, and the same sort of charming characters and wonderful descriptive prose that I so praised in my review of ‘The Case of The Gilded Fly’ (see review), but as a mystery critic, the mystery is supposed to be the subject under review, and this one is really not a great whodunnit! Even worse, as a locked room / impossible crime critic, this is about as impossible as textbook on algebra! The question therefore becomes: Does this mystery’s literary merits provide sufficient excuse for a rather underwhelming plot?
Edmund Crispin was actually the pseudonym of Robert Bruce Montgomery (1921 – 1978), who is now remembered for both his Gervase Fen mystery novels and his musical compositions. Born in Chesham Bois, Buckinghamshire, Montgomery graduated from St John’s College, Oxford, in 1943, with a BA in modern languages. He also spent two years as the school’s organ scholar and choirmaster – a position which plays a role in some of his novels. He first became known for his mysteries and was only later recognized as a composer of vocal and choral music, including ‘An Oxford Requiem’ (1951). He eventually turned to film work, writing the scores for many British comedies, including the famous ‘Carry On’ series. His later years were far less productive, problems with his health, not helped by his alcoholism, eventually left him an invalid too weak to write. In 2006, P.D. James picked The Moving Toyshop as one of her “five most riveting crime novels”. It is also on the CWA Best 100 Mystery Novels Ever list and the Crime Writers Association of Great Britain’s Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time.
The plot is fairly easy to summarize. Richard Cadogan, a semi-famous poet and would-be bon-vivant, has decided it is time for a vacation. He gets an advance from his publisher and immediately heads for Oxford in search of a little adventure. He soon finds more than he bargained for, when his train is halted mid trip in Didcot and he is forced to hitchhike the rest of the journey. Dropped on the outskirts of Oxford in the early hours Ack Emma, he begins to walk the rest of the distance to town. Along the way he comes upon a toyshop with it’s awning still open. For no apparent good reason, he decides to try the door and finds it unlocked, and for no better reason, he decides to enter and tell the proprietor that he forgot to lock his door. Instead, upstairs in the shop’s attached flat, he discovers the body of an elderly woman who has apparently been strangled to death. He is just headed off to report the crime, when he is coshed with the proverbial blunt object, and wakes the next morning to find himself locked in a storage cupboard – fortunately with an open window! He makes good his escape, then does his civic duty by reporting this mysterious adventure to the Oxford Constabulary. However, it may have been smarter to remain silent! When he returns with the police, the toyshop is gone, replaced by a grocers, and there is no trace of any murdered body. Written off as an eccentric, or too tipsy, he flees to the even more eccentric Oxford don, Gervase Fen, English professor and fellow of the fictitious St. Christopher’s College.
Fen’s entrance is quite superb! He has recently purchased a red sports car, dubbed the mighty Lily Christine III, and it has several serious mechanical defects, which nearly result in the university president’s death before he can even digest his breakfast!
“…The car made directly for the window where the President of the college, a thin, demure man of mildly epicurean tastes, was sunning himself. Perceiving his peril, he retreated in panic haste. But the car missed the wall of his lodging and fled on up to the end of the drive, where the driver, with a tremendous swerve of the wheel and damage to the grass borders, succeeded in turning it completely round. At this point there seemed to be nothing to stop his rushing back the way he had come, but unhappily, in righting the wheel, he pulled it over too far, and the car thundered across a strip of lawn, buried its nose in a large rhododendron bush, choked, stalled, and stopped.
Its driver got out and gazed at it with some severity. While he was doing this it backfired suddenly – a tremendous report, a backfire to end all backfires. He frowned, took a hammer from the back seat, opened the bonnet and hit something inside. The he closed the bonnet again and resumed his seat. The engine started and the car went into reverse with a colossal jolt and began racing backwards towards the President’s lodging. The President, who had returned to the window and was gazing at this scene with horrid fascination, retired again, with scarcely less haste than before. The driver looked over his shoulder, and saw the President’s Lodging towering above him, like a liner above a motor-boat. Without hesitation he changed into forward gear. The car uttered a terrible shriek, shuddered like a man with the ague, and stopped…
With dignity the driver put on the brake, climbed out, and took a brief case from the back seat.
At the cessation of noise the President had approached the window again. He now flung it open.
“My dear Fen,” he expostulated. “I’m glad you have left us a little of the college to carry on with. I feared you were about to demolish it entirely.””
Of course, Fen is an amateur sleuth who loves nothing better than a good murder, but this is not the Fen of ‘The Case of The Gilded Fly’. Fen has undergone a bit of a personality transplant since his early cases. He was never portrayed as over serious, but this new Fen is downright flighty. After Cadogen briefly recounts his mysterious discovery, this perfectly matched pair of poet and critic, begin a full day of revels and investigation that soon put them on the trail of a nasty plot to deny this elderly victim her inheritance. It seems that the very wealthy, and once again eccentric (a requirement for all Crispin characters), Miss Snaith, was run over by a bus some six months earlier. Her very quirky will left a secret trust in the charge of a rather shabby lawyer by the name of Rosseter. If the woman’s niece, Miss Tardy (AKA: The Victim), who has appropriately been very tardy with her visits and was never a favourite of her aunt, shows up within six months of Miss Snaith’s death to claim her fortune, all is well and the cash stays in the family. However, Miss Tardy loves nothing better than to travel about the continent with all those unpleasant foreign types, and Rosseter is strictly prohibited from advertising the inheritance outside England. On the other hand, should she fail to make her claim, this considerable fortune is to be divided equally between five heirs, cryptically known only as Ryde, Leeds, West, Moldova and Berlin – all people who have at some point gained Miss Snaith’s favour for small actions. Each of these individual has been given an envelope to take to a specified bank, and are put in contact with Rosseter by an ad that is supposed to appear in The Oxford Mail agony column, if Miss Tardy has not shown up within the allotted six months. These odd code names are all taken from the comic verse of Edward Lear, as Miss Snaith was a great fan. For example, the first to provide Fen and Cadogan with the basic story is a young shop girl, who was once patient with the tiresome old lady’s shopping habits. Sally Carstairs, is identified in the secret trust as ‘Ryde’, since she fit the following description:
There was a Young Lady of Ryde,
Whose shoe-strings were seldom untied.
She purchased some clogs,
And some small spotted dogs,
And frequently walked about Ryde.
The six months have actually not quite expired when the ad appears and Rosseter gathers the beneficiaries into a plot to thwart Miss Tardy’s timely arrival – just before the deadline. The original idea is simply to force her to sign away her inheritance under pressure, and most join in the plot, though Sally is merely an unwitting pawn, but one of the other four who stand to inherit, apparently decided to take things a step further – to murder! Only Rosseter and the five potential heirs, or others they may have brought in to events, could possibly be behind this nasty turn of events, but the question now is which one!
That first exuberant ride in Lily Christine III sets the tone and pace as Fen and Cadogen return to investigate the grocers and accidentally steal a few cans of food – putting Cadogen on the wrong side of the law. Before long they are hot on the trail of the girl with a spotted dog, buzzing all over Oxford, trespassing through a choir rehearsal and disrupting a church service, only to be waylaid by a couple of thugs, before the hunt morphs into a frantic chase cramped inside a lumbering lorry. Of course, they successfully rescue the damsel in distress, but the game has only just begun! They soon return to the pursuit, after sending the police off on a false scent. Fen then calls on the Oxford rowing team to catch the elusive Berlin, which evolves into a wild mob parade and a full scale invasion of a nude bathing beach! This is a wonderful masterpiece of English humour, which never pauses long, as the chase is yet again reformed, this time passing through a rather sleazy theatre, until all finally becomes clear after a wild merry-go-round spin that was the source of the famous climax of Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Strangers on a Train’. In usual Crispin style, there are far too many coincidences to ever coincide with reality, and the solution is not quite ‘fair play’, but all these minor complaints are simply overwhelmed by this extended frolic and Crispin’s magnificent prose. It is truly a grand romp that will keep you in stitches and so chock full of lyrical passages that this is nothing more than average:
“They were sitting in the bar of the Mace and Sceptre, Fen drinking whiskey, Cadogan beer. 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 time of primitive man. Against this initial disadvantage it struggles nobly to create an atmosphere of homeliness and comfort. The bar is a fine example of Strawberry Hill Gothic.”
Or there is the uneducated lorry driver, who is trying to improve himself with Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers:
‘”We’ve lorst touch,’ he continued, ‘with sex – the grand primeval energy; the dark, mysterious source of life. Not,’ he added confidentially, ‘That I’ve ever exactly felt that – beggin’ your pardon – when I’ve been in bed with the old woman. But that’s because industrial civilization ‘as got me in its clutches.’
‘Oh, I shouldn’t say that.’
The driver raised one hand in warning. ‘But it ‘as. A soulless machine, that’s all am I – nothin’ but a soulless machine… Ere, wot do we do nah?'”
Other scintillating passages involve senseless references that break the fourth wall, as when Fen is queried about what he is doing, and drolly replies, “I was making up titles for Crispin”, or “Fen smiled at her. ‘bring out the irons,’ he said. ‘He that outlives this day, and comes safe home, will stand a tiptoe when this day is named, and rouse him at the name of Crispin…’ no, perhaps not exactly.’ ” The amount of whiskey imbibed is far more than copious, as sleuthing is thirsty work for Fen, and the few slow moments are almost over filled with fascinating literary games, such as ‘Unreadable Books’ and ‘Annoying Characters in Books Meant by the Author to Be Sympathetic’! The archaic description of a char woman as a ‘slut’ may also jar modern readers, and in yet another amusing scene, a page-boy enters the Mace and Sceptre bar, paging “Telephone call for Mr. T. S. Eliot!” and Fen responds, “That’s me.”
The title of ‘A Moving Toyshop’, like so many of Crispin’s allusions is reasonably obscure, taken from Pope’s The Rape of the Lock:
“With varying vanities, from every part,
They shift the moving toyshop of their heart”
As usual in all of Crispin’s novels you must always have your reference library handy, as hardly a page passes without some literary reference. The Moving Toyshop was dedicated to the poet Philip Larkin, a contemporary of Crispin’s at St John’s College, Oxford, who gets a nod when an essay by an undergraduate is mentioned, titled “The Influence of Sir Gawain on Arnold’s Empedocles on Etna”, and Fen responds: “Good heavens, that must be Larkin: the most indefatigable searcher out of pointless correspondences the world has ever known.”
So what do we do with this amazing romp? It is truly an amazing literary achievement and a wonderful piece of comedy, filled with amazing characters set in a rich textural environment. It is highly entertaining and must be recommended. However, unfortunately, the plot is simply ludicrous, and a few minutes thought busts open this minor whodunnit! Even worse, the only mild impossibility is entirely dependent on a truly impossible pronouncement of the precise time of death, which is, in turn, based on ridiculous observations. As a mystery this is maybe three stars, as a locked room maybe two, but as a classic piece of genre literature, in the tradition of the locked room farce, this is clearly a full five stars! I remain far too confused to pass further judgement, so I will just mark as it read, and let you decide for yourself!
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