I’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.