The Moving Toyshop – Edmund Crispin (1946)

MovingToyShopI’ve been collecting Edmund Crispin books for several months now without actually reading them.  It all started with Swan Song, frequently cited as his best work, but I’ve for some reason held off on reading it.  Then I started collecting more of his books – The Moving Toyshop, Love Lies Bleeding, The Case of the Gilded Fly, Glimpses of the Moon, Buried for Pleasure.  It’s probably a questionable pursuit, collecting an author without actually having read them.

With a wide range of titles presented to me, I shook my instinct to go with Swan Song and instead went against my nature by selecting THE BOOK – The Moving Toyshop.  I refer to it that way because this is the famous one – Crispin’s version of The Hollow Man or Murder on the Orient Express.  The Moving Toyshop seems to be the “of course you’ve read this one” title when it comes to Crispin, and so I figured I might as well use it as my springboard.

Well, of course you’ve read this one, but let’s take a look at the book anyway.  Gervase Fen, literature professor at Oxford college, is Crispin’s series sleuth.  In his third outing, Fen is drawn into the curious case of his poet friend, Richard Cadogen.  Cadogen is visiting Oxford in an attempt to stimulate his creativity, and has immediately stumbled upon an unexplainable murder.

Dropped off at the outskirts of town very late at night, Cadogan has inexplicably wandered into a toyshop simply because he found the door unlocked.  Naturally finding the shop deserted, he proceeds upstairs to the dark living quarters in an apparent attempt to get himself shot for trespassing.  Instead, he stumbles upon the body of a strangled woman.  A fairly creepy scene ensues in which it becomes clear that Cadogen isn’t alone.  He ends up knocked out and awakens locked in a closet.  Upon freeing himself, the poet reports the incident to the police, but is bewildered when they return to the crime scene to find that it is…a grocery store.  No sign of the toyshop remains.

The setup to the story is engaging enough, but the puzzle of how a toyshop could disappear seems to fall into the category of “there are only two solutions to this problem.”  However, the disappearing store isn’t really positioned as the main focal point of the story.  Instead, we get all sorts of antics as Fen and Cadogen dash about Oxford trying to solve the puzzle.

I was a bit surprised to find that The Moving Toyshop is somewhat of a breezy Hollywood-style romp.  I had assumed, given the Oxford setting and poet/professor characters, that I was due for a stodgy academic-leaning literary affair.  No, quite the opposite.

Fen and Cadogen careen about town chasing women, fighting henchmen, upending church ceremonies, and causing all kinds of ruckus.  We’re even treated to a witness being shot just as he’s about to spill the beans on the whole ordeal.

While it’s tempting to think that the “moving toyshop” is the core puzzle of the book, it’s actually a fairly minor element.  More prominent is the mystery of who is ultimately pulling all of the strings in what appears to be an orchestrated attempt to cover everything up.  On top of that, there’s a borderline impossible crime slipped into the works.  I’m going to have to be vague here, as the impossibility is presented quite late in the story, and the very setup hinges on some key plot developments that don’t take place until well past the midway point.  Essentially, four people are together in a room at the time that a fifth person is killed elsewhere in the same house, and yet one of the four has to be the killer.

“It all looked so difficult – so implausible.  Almost a locked-room mystery; certainly an ‘impossible murder’”.

Unfortunately, the impossibility doesn’t really have legs.  It’s told second hand by several witnesses who have a strong incentive to lie.  It’s also somewhat lost amongst the various capers scattered throughout the fast moving plot, and as such I’d describe The Moving Toyshop not as an impossible crime, but rather as a book that happens to feature one.

Still, many mysteries are enjoyable without an impossibility, and The Moving Toyshop certainly fits the bill.  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.

I’m somewhat surprised that this is the Crispin work that gets all the attention.  Yeah, I’ve definitely heard reports that Swan Song and a few other titles are better, but still, The Moving Toyshop seems to be the book most tightly associated with the author’s name.  Or, maybe I’m wrong and the title just seemed to stick out to me.

Will I be reading more Crispin in the near future?  Certainly.  This provided a nice break from my standard affair and I’ve another five titles by the author burning a hole in my bookshelf right now.

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19 thoughts on “The Moving Toyshop – Edmund Crispin (1946)”

  1. 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.

    I’m…I’m gonna have to lie down after reading that.

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    1. Hmm, I’m not sure how to interpret that. I take it that you hold one book in much higher regard than the other, but which one…? I did some investigation and found you provided the following statement in your review of The Frightened Stiff:
      If the Carr sounds too creepy and the Crispin to frivolous then this is the perfect median.

      Therefore, I deduce that you liked The Frightened Stiff significantly more, and have a low opinion of The Moving Toyshop. Did I get it? Am I a detective now? What are your thoughts on the Crispin title?

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      1. No, I love ’em both — they’re equally burned into my mind for how much they play with the accepted tropes, and how gleeful yet dark they are. The idea that either — both! — are just so much fluff to be dismissed and forgotten is, well, laudably contrary to my own perceptions.

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  2. Seemed to have enjoyed this one more than you when I re-read it for my blog a while back. I think with Crispin you have to be careful to not just assume it’s all lightness, frothy fun and ridiculousness. Don’t get me wrong there is definitely that aspect to it, but I think in early Crispin there is more going on beneath the surface. I equally wouldn’t equate Crispin’s work wholly with the Roos, though there is the humour connection, but I think they do diverge a bit in some respects. Glad you’re going to give Crispin another go – his early stuff is his best. Crispin is one of those authors I really need to review more of on my blog, but since I read them all before I started the blog I’ve not been mindful enough to get around to re-reading them all yet. Hopefully might get around to some of his titles this year (make the goal manageable after all),

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    1. Balancing my reading has become more difficult as I’ve taken more authors on. Upon finishing The Moving Toyshop, it was really tempting to try to immediately tuck a few more Crispin titles under my belt. But, then again, I want to experiment with a few titles by Christopher Bush, Michael Gilbert, and Freeman Wills Crofts. Plus, I’ve been meaning to get back to Helen McCloy, Christianna Brand, and John Sladek. And of course, I have to keep up a steady diet of John Dickson Carr and Agatha Christie. Gah!!! Well, it’s a nice problem to have!

      I can’t imagine how you manage it all with all of the authors that you review. I’ll definitely look forward to you taking on a few by Crispin.

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  3. I’ll be re-reading this in a few weeks time – I just recently re-read “Holy Disorders” – and we’ll see if my opinion will change any. I remember it as one of the funniest Crispin books, and also one of the most memorable.

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  4. It’s not odd to collect an author before reading them, at least I hope not since I’ve done the same. (One of them being Crispin.) I had it in my mind that he was more, I don’t know, highminded? Because I recently read The Frightened Stiff and found it lots of fun, light fare. And I thought Crispin was more literary. But then again, like I said I haven’t read him yet. This is encouraging.

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    1. Yeah, I was completely caught off guard that Crispin wasn’t more high-minded. I’ve only read one of his books so who knows if that will hold. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with light fair – it’s immensely preferable to slogging your way through hundreds of pages of boring detective work.

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      1. Case in point: I have bought several (lots, loads) of Michael Innes books. Tried the first one and couldn’t get into it. Not to say I won’t try again (I bought many, a bunch) it just didn’t hit me at the right time probably. I’m reading Seeing Is Believing in its place. THAT I’m super enjoying.

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      2. Which Innes book did you try? I almost bought a pack of them about a month ago but then read some reviews that made me think twice. The standout title that I’ve heard about is Hamlet Revenge, but I haven’t tracked down a good copy at a cheap price yet.

        I really enjoyed Seeing is Believing – talk about a great setup. It’s probably one of the more controversial Carr titles, so I’d love to hear your thoughts. Feel free to post a comment on my review of the book.

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  5. The first Innes book. Seven Suspects/Death At The President’s Lodging. It just didn’t grab me and I moved on. Seeing Is Believing is moving along quite nicely! And thanks, when I finish, I’ll comment on your review. (Which I read, minus spoilers, before beginning!)

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    1. I’m very keen on Micheal Innes but I agree that the first book in the Appleby series is not the best way to venture forth into Innes-Land. I was fortunate enough to begin at random with THE SECRET VANGUARD which I loved. Over the past couple of years I’ve read most of Innes’ Appleby books and several of his amazing standalones. I have to say that Appleby is an acquired taste and you either get what Innes is doing or you don’t – it all depends, I suppose, on your tolerance for word play, English lit., absurdity and even fantasy. Not every Innes book is a winner, but I quickly became a fan-girl and have reviewed several of his books on my blog – too many reviews, some might say since I tend to get carried away with my enthusiasm for favorite authors. But, I disliked HAMLET, REVENGE and have always wondered why everyone mentions it as an exemplary Innes. Ugh.

      Of the Applebys, I hesitate to recommend my faves since the enjoyment of Innes’ flights of fancy so much depend on your mood of the moment. I adore THE SECRET VANGUARD and have read it several times. It’s not a whodunit or technically a mystery, more of a spy yarn/adventure set mostly in the highlands of Scotland.

      As for the Innes standalones, I highly recommend THE CASE OF THE JOURNEYING BOY if you read no other. But if that one pleases you, then try OPERATION PAX, FROM LONDON FAR and THE MAN FROM THE SEA – all of which have aspects which today would be called, I suppose, magical realism. I don’t know, they’re just different from anything else. Innes didn’t think like the rest of us.

      Sorry to ramble on, but as I mentioned, I do get carried away. 🙂

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  6. Excellent review—thank you. I’m a huge Crispin fan, but I’ve always been a bit puzzled that most people cite The Moving Toyshop as Crispin’s best. I’d put it in the middle of the pack (behind The Long Divorce, Love Lies Bleeding, Swan Song, and possibly Buried for Pleasure, though far ahead of Glimpses of the Moon). It has a great beginning (yes, it takes some suspension of disbelief but I’m game) and some funny scenes, but the solution seems thin to me—it would be fine for a short story, but the culprit’s identity isn’t surprising (this is a given since it’s a Cards-on-the-Table situation, with supposedly only four suspects; Carr has a similar set-up in one of his books but provides a twist), and though the explanation of the apparent impossibility is fair, it requires a little medical knowledge.

    By the way, I’ve collected C. Daly King’s books though I haven’t read any, partly because I’ve heard good things about him, partly because I’d heard some of his books are hard to get, so I bought affordable copies when they turned up. I’ve got five but lack Arrogant Alibi and The Careless Corpse.

    I too enjoyed Seeing Is Believing. It has a couple of big faults—an impossible crime that’s too far fetched even for me, and you-know-what-if-you’ve-read-it—but, as you say, a great set-up, a plot that keeps you involved, and one of the last books in which H.M. is (to me) actually funny. (Good luck getting through The Cavalier’s Cup. I actually had a theory when I read it that a certain character was not what he seemed, because why would you have such an excruciatingly unfunny comic character if not for plot reasons? I was wrong.)

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    1. Well, if anything, I’m happy to hear opinions that The Moving Toyshop is middle of the pack for Crispin. It was a perfectly enjoyable read, and so to know that I have better works ahead of me is encouraging. I’m definitely eyeing Love Lies Bleeding or Swan Song for my next encounter.

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      1. The Moving Toyshop really is middle of the pack for me, maybe even a little below the middle, in spite of the high reputation it enjoys.

        Here’s how I would rate the others:

        The good ones:

        The Case of the Gilded Fly (the first, and one of the most entertaining reads, although the solution is no great shakes)
        Swan Song (another highly entertaining read and a good impossible crime)
        Love Lies Bleeding (the most complex plot with a real surprise at the end)
        Frequent Hearses (stunningly simple solution in all the complexity)
        Beware of the Trains (some brilliant short stories in this collection)

        The not-so-good ones:

        Holy Disorders (story didn’t quite jell for me)
        The Long Divorce (good enough solution, but the humour is a bit much – this was Crispin’s last novel before the long break)
        Buried for Pleasure (figured the solution to this one out, but the running-for-Parliament subplot is great)
        The Glimpses of the Moon (a mess, you can safely skip this one)

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      2. The Long Divorce seems to be a love it or hate it book. Buried for Pleasure seems to be liked by most people and I’ve seen it recommended a number of times. I have seen people disliking Glimpses of the Moon, but I’ve also seen one or two people argue that there is an aspect of it that is brilliant.

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  7. P.S. I love Edmund Crispin’s books. Just recently I am gathering them up as e-books and reading them one after the other. SWAN SONG has one of the funniest opening paragraphs ever. I was so taken with it I had to read it aloud to my family in between howling with laughter. BURIED FOR PLEASURE, THE LONG DIVORCE and others are also delightful. Crispin is really a wonderful writer, not necessarily a clinician along the lines of Carr, but so engaging in his own unique way. And gosh do I love his knack for settings and description. And to my mind, he has the acerbic wit which Carr often struggles with. (Don’t get me wrong, I love Carr, but Crispin is just a different sort of writer.)

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