Well, it really *was* inevitable that, having focused my thoughts on Edmund Crispin, I would feel the need to pick up one of his books – the only question was, which one should it be??? As I mentioned in my post on the great man, I’ve read everything; but have only re-read two titles during the lifetime of the Ramblings. I pondered for a bit, but in the end there was only really one choice. So I picked up his masterpiece “The Moving Toyshop” for a welcome revisit and what a blast it was!!!! 😀

As I mentioned, I think this was my first Gervase Fen, and it was actually Crispin’s third detective novel. Published in 1946 and set in Oxford, the book opens with the poet Richard Cadogan deciding to take some time out from London by paying a visit to Oxford. A run in with his publisher has left him most fed up, and so he sets off by train for a change of scenery. However he has reckoned without the vagaries of the rail service and finding himself stranded in Didcot, he procures a lift to the outskirts of Oxford where circumstances find him wandering round a deserted toyshop in the middle of the night. Well, maybe deserted is the wrong word, because Cadogan soon finds himself stumbling over a dead body and receiving a bash to the skull. Unaccountably, when he recovers and fetches the Police, the toyshop has disappeared, to be replaced by a grocers and there’s not a body in sight. Luckily Cadogan is able to call upon the services of Gervase Fen to help unlock the secrets of what is a complex and fiendishly clever plot!

Fen makes his entrance in Lily Christine III, his cantankerous and noisy sports car which will make regular appearances in the story. The scene is wonderfully funny and larger than life, which is how Fen is all the way through. Cadogen is flummoxed by events; however, Fen manages to work his way through all manner of red herrings and misdirections to get to the truth, and the solution is very clever.

As you can guess I have had my reasonably priced copy for a while….

It’s a good number of years since I read “The Moving Toyshop” and although I’ve always considered Crispin’s books to be humorous detection, I had forgotten quite how manic they could be! This one, in particular, features a number of wonderful set pieces and madcap chases through Oxford which are almost filmic in their construction. Crispin demonstrates a love for, and knowledge of, the city, and delights in showing the population being quite unmoved by the madness around them. Whether it’s a car chase round the city, a pursuit on foot to a local beauty spot or an invasion of a choral society rehearsal in the Sheldonian, Fen and Cadogan tear around Oxford in constant pursuit of a variety of suspects and it’s always hilarious. In fact, I do have a sneaking feeling there’s often more farce than detection, but I had no problem with that…

However, Crispin does always manage to rein Fen in and remind the reader that actually there’s been a nasty little murder (which is inevitably followed by others); and the finale is dramatic and dark and very exciting. Interestingly, without wanting to give anything away, apparently that finale was lifted by Hitchcock for one of his films (without credit!). I’m not going to say which one, because I would hate to spoil your joy if you decide on a first-time read of the book; but it’s a clever and unforgettable ending.

Out of the grey light came a golden morning. The leaves were beginning to fall from the trees in the Parks and in St. Giles’, but they still made a brave show of bronze and yellow and malt-brown. The grey maze of Oxford – from the air, it resembles nothing so much as a maze – began to stir itself.

Of course, one of the things I loved about Crispin’s Fen stories, and which I mentioned in my piece on him, is the constant breaking of the fourth wall. “The Moving Toyshop” has plenty of marvellous examples, as well as some excellent punning – for example, when a bookworm lorry driver, who’s a recurring subsidiary character, refers to having joined a circulating library and read all that was worth reading, Cadogan’s rejoinder is “Getting too big for your Boots?” There’s a wonderful point in the story where Cagoden, having been knocked out again, comes round to hear Fen “making up titles for Crispin”; and that kind of thing recurs throughout. There’s also a lovely collection of supporting characters including the long-suffering local Chief Constable, the lovely Sally Carstairs, the ageing but surprisingly indefatigable don, Wilkes, numerous undergraduates and Cadogen’s publisher to boot. It really is the most wonderful book and I could pull out so many marvellous quotes but I actually haven’t because I want to leave the joy of discovering them to any new readers!

As might be obvious, I really did love my re-read of “The Moving Toyshop”; from start to finish it was a treat, a wonderful combination of crime, detecting, humour and a vividly painted setting. The book is dedicated to Philip Larkin, who was, as I mentioned, a friend of Crispin’s (along with Kingsley Amis) when they were both at Oxford. In fact, there is a recurring pub scene featuring a young man with glasses and a long neck reading a book, and an undergraduate with a broad mouth discussing horses with the landlord; I couldn’t help wondering if these were a pair of cameos… Whether or not they are, however, this is a book to love, relish and revisit on a regular basis – just wonderful! 😀