#552: Spoiler Warning 11 – The Moving Toyshop (1946) by Edmund Crispin

spoiler-warning

We are here today to discuss The Moving Toyshop (1946) — Edmund Crispin’s third novel to feature his Oxford University don detective Gervase Fen — in full, spoiler-rich style…proceed no further if you wish read this book without knowing, y’know, everything that happens.

And by “we” I mean myself and Christian of Mysteries, Short and Sweet, who has been lured away from his beloved short stories to talk this one through with me.  I’m not going into the plot — you presumably know that since you’re here having the book discussed in detail — so all the remains is to tell you that I will be the shouty one in bold while Christian’s measured and tolerant Swedish nature shall be captured in normal text.

All clear?  Then let’s go…

~

I’m intrigued by the fact that you read this in translation, and I’m wondering if the Edward Lear limericks that prove so important to the plot were translated directly – in which case they would not rhyme, I imagine – of if they were Swedified.  For instance, were the beneficiaries under Mrs. Snaith’s will called Mold, Berlin, Ryde, West, and Leeds?

The Swedish translation uses the city names from the English original but they translate the verses, and it uses Wight instead of Ryde.  I’m not sure if they keep close to Lear’s original verses or just create a translation that fits with the plot, but they manage to get them to rhyme in the Swedish translation. (I suppose it helps that Swedish and English are related, even though they’re not that closely related.)

Wight, which is a sound that doesn’t exist in Swedish, is rhymed with “all right”, which is a phrase that is all right(!) to use in Swedish, though it’s an obvious loan word.  Lear is not particularly well-known in Sweden, so I doubt that anyone would be much the wiser. I know I wasn’t…

Sally Carstairs is Ryde in the English version on account of her spotted dog, so does the Swedish rhyme still make mention of the dog?

Literal translation:

There was a young lady from Wight
Who tied her shoelaces all right.
She bought clogs for a pound,
Had a small spotted hound,
And walked around on Wight.

I can provide the literal translations of the others as well if anyone wants them…

I can understand why the translator used Wight instead, because the rhyme “all right” works okay in Swedish – it’s a loan that hasn’t been adjusted into regular Swedish, so not optimal but still workable – but there is no way to rhyme Ryde with any Swedish word.

There’s also quite a lot of quotations, mainly made by Fen. Many are presented as is with footnotes presenting a (loose) translation of the quote.

Ho-Ling Wong did a similar thing when translating Japanese impossible crime mysteries into English, which was extremely helpful.  In fact, I can well believe a lot of the references would go over the heads of most native English speakers – “They reached the opposite pavement much as Orestes, hounded by the Furies, must have staggered into Iphigenia’s grove in Tauris” is about as legible as this gets for the layman.  Have you read Crispin in English at all?  Is anything lost in the translation and explanation?

I’ve read several of Crispin’s short stories in English (since most of them have never been translated) – and translated them myself! But I can’t say that I’ve read the English original versions of those stories that were translated and compared them that way. I can imagine that there’s quite a lot of the academic vocabulary and allusions that has been adjusted for Swedish eyes.

For my own part, I think the short stories use less of those donnish allusions, so I can’t remember having to do much with any such expressions. I remember Crispin as a fairly easy writer to translate – possibly my recollection is positively affected by the fact that most of them are quite short…

I wonder if the short stories haven’t been translated because some of them rely so heavily on linguistic peculiarities in English – the homonyms “rode” and “rowed”, for instance.  These are in the minority, but I wonder if someone tried at some point, kept coming across these instances, and had to throw their hands up in disgust…!

Moving Toyshops 2

If I’m not mistaken, this is Fen’s first recorded case. The story is set in 1938, while I think that the previous novels were set more concurrently with when they were written/published. I found it interesting that not much is made of that. Fen isn’t presented as a novice detective – he already is well acquainted with his police contact (this early on in his career it’s still sir Richard Freeman rather than Humbleby) and is able to get important information from him. Did you get any feel from this that this was early in Fen’s career?

Certainly The Case of the Gilded Fly (1944), the first Fen novel, is set during WW2 – I remember the French pilot’s disdain at le blackout Anglais – but it never occurred to me that this is technically set before that.  Weird.  I can only presume that the war was too recent, or that Crispin hadn’t decided what Fen was up to during the war, so he went backwards for his setting.  He’s already known to the police, as you say, and some of the students seem to know him as a sleuth, too…hmmm.  I wonder if there’s any chance of working out a chronology with the short stories, as well, since most of them feature Humbleby…

I had a look at Holy Disorders (1945) and it is set after Dunkirk, so definitely after this story as well. As for working out an internal chronology, that’s something that I’d be greatly interested in. Well, perhaps not the work itself, but the result, definitely. There is a biography on Crispin/Montgomery by David Whittle. I don’t know if it goes into any of this stuff, though.

From an authorly construction perspective, it feels like an early case, for sure: I had misremembered how little detection there is in this book.  From the point that they spot Sally Carstairs across the street it’s essentially a series of chase scenes and thriller shenanigans – Someone Is Killed Just As They’re About to Reveal the Plan, etc.  How do you think it stands up as an example of Golden Age Detection?

This was a point that I was going to make as well. It’s all extremely coincidental, things just happen and randomly seem to work out. The whole bit where they are searching for Sally by entering shops… 😀

That’s about the only detection there is!

It’s not a great mystery by any means, there’s too little fair play and as I said, things just happen and manage to work out for the best for Fen and Cadogan. However, I think it’s a really entertaining book. Crispin knew how to write in an amusing way. So, while it’s subpar as a mystery novel, I would still recommend it as a humorous novel with criminal incidents.

I even found the humour less amusing this time around.  There are a few good lines, like Mr. Hoskins “who had never been known to engage in any sport save the most ancient of them all” and Cadogan’s irritable  “Unless the vocabulary of bawdry has undergone accretions since my young days, no” – but mainly I found most of the humour missing with me this time, too.  Though I am interested in your thoughts as to whom Crispin refers when Cadogan sees “a popular woman novelist stumble on getting into the lift”…any ideas?

I don’t know if Crispin intended it to be anyone in specific. There is a previous passage during the same conversation between Fen and Cadogan where Fen breaks off to admire a young blonde woman in furs and high heels – it could just be additional colour in the prose. Though if we had a good choice of Oxfordian women authors, particularly such women who frequented The Club and the Spire…

I wondered if it might be a Sayers reference I wasn’t erudite enough to pick up on…

Let’s throw it out to the community, maybe someone there knows if the reference was to anyone specific…

Of course, appreciation of humour is a very personal thing. I just find that Crispin’s sense of humour fits well with my own. I know that some feel that it sometimes drowns out the mysterious parts of Crispin’s stories – and obviously it does in this book – but as I greatly appreciate it, I don’t mind much. The place where I laughed out loud during this re-read was during Fen’s singing in the choir. I guess that says a lot about my low form of humour… 😊 (I also love, love, love that early chapter in Holy Disorders where Geoffrey is at the department store looking to buy a butterfly net.)

Here’s the thing, I remember Crispin being much funnier than this, and love that scene with the butterfly net, and the scene in Swan Song (1947) where he randomly pulls a teddy bear out of his pocket…I just felt that too little of that sort of absurdity really lands here.  Most of the jokes feel too forced or too lofty for the likes of we mere mortals – “Let’s play unreadable books”, say.  But, hey, I’m not saying it’s not funny, just that I remember it being much, much funnier.

Moving Toyshops 1

This relies on two gigantic coincidences to allow the plot to happen: first that Richard Cadogan just happens to try the door of the toyshop (…couldn’t it just have been left slightly ajar…?) and secondly that Dr. Havering simply happens to discover that Aaron Rosseter is Mrs. Snaith’s solicitor.  The plot’s thin at the best of times, but these two things in consort really bother me.  Am I alone in that?

No, I think we’re agreed in general on this. You’re quite right that those are whopping coincidences (as is the way they manage to find Sally, as I referred to above). But as you’ve probably understood from the above, I do take exception with your opinion that “it’s a less good book” – it’s a less good mystery, which is not necessarily the same thing.

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.

I have a similar history with this one as well – I don’t think it was one of the very earliest mysteries I read, but I still have fond memories of reading it a long time ago – and certainly there’s some nostalgia that makes me appreciate this more, but still, I really enjoyed myself while re-reading this. I wouldn’t recommend it as anyone’s first Crispin read, but it’s a part of what made Crispin Crispin and if for no other reason it’s essential because of that.

So, on those grounds, you’re saying you consider Crispin essential to the reading of GAD?  Christie, Carr, Sayers, Queen…you’d put his work in the same bracket?

Well, of course it’s a personal thing, but I’d certainly put him above Sayers myself. One has to admire that she managed to popularize the genre to a certain stratum of readers, but as we’ve established, Sayers is not at all a favourite of mine.

Crispin has a number of truly great tales. I count at least three short stories that are important cornerstones, and three or four novels – I’m in the middle of my Crispin re-read, so that number might have to be adjusted a little.

So in all, I’d not put Crispin in the very highest rank of mystery writers (reserved for C, C & Q), but he’s on the next level. With people like Brand & Berkeley. If pressed, I might add people like the three other Crime Queens, Boucher and Quentin/Patrick/Stagge to this same level. In short, there are few authors where I’d be as excited if someone told me that a never before seen novel had been found in some attic somewhere.

Despite the weaknesses in this one we’ve already discussed?

Yes, certainly. I had a good time reading this, and I’m sure I’d have a good time reading whatever ideas Crispin had managed to put to paper elsewhere. The weaknesses of this book are not enough to kill this book off completely, and my vague recollection is that there are worse Crispin novels than this one.  I think all other mystery authors have novels that are worse than the level of this one. And that includes the Big Three.

I feel certain that Crispin himself realised that this was hugely reliant on coincidences. Because there’s another really big coincidence in the book where it turns out that Cadogan’s publisher Mr. Spode is ANOTHER heir of Mrs. Snaith’s. But that’s just treated as an aside and never really used in the plot, which I found amusing. Because I had reasoned out – “guessed” is probably a better word, as there is very little reasoning you’re able to do as a reader – by then that surely Mr. Spode’s entrance towards the end of the novel would mean that he’d be tied into the whole thing – I kinda sorta thought he might turn out to be the killer in the end. But as I said, it’s more or less treated as a small Easter egg.

And yet at times the reasoning is superb – such as Fen explaining to Cadogan why Rosseter couldn’t have been the person who knocked Cadogan out at the start.  It’s a shame that it devolves away from that, because when he did this well – see the “list of suspects” in Holy Disorders, or the timing/alibi element of Love Lies Bleeding – Crispin was capable of some fabulous reasoning.

Yes, I will absolutely agree with you here. When Crispin was writing full on fair play mysteries, he was one of the very best of the genre.

Actually, I just re-read Fen’s explanation of why Rosseter couldn’t have been the one who was the murderer, because he wasn’t the one who knocked Cadogan out. Thing is, it turns out that whole reasoning is faulty, because the one who knocked Cadogan out was not the murderer! So even though it’s a fine piece of reasoning, again it’s a sign that Crispin was perhaps not firing on all cylinders here

 Dude, my reputation is in the doldrums as it is…

We’re both quite agreed that this is a rather unsuccessful mystery – though perhaps we disagree on how entertaining the book is – but I’d like to point out one thing where I think Crispin really succeeds, and that is in the Oxford setting, which is rather lovely. The whole bit in the beginning when Cadogan is walking into the city at night is rather wonderful, I thought, and the later bits (searching for Sally, joining the choir singers and rowing on the river) are all greatly evocative of a city I’ve visited only once, 25 years ago, and only have fading memories of.

“In what other city…could one address to a policeman a discourse on epistemology in the witching hours of the night, and be received with neither indignation nor suspicion?” is a wonderful quote.  And Crispin’s opening note that “the ancient and noble city of Oxford is, of all the towns in England, the likeliest progenitor of unlikely events and persons.  But there are limits” is a delightfully sly way of acknowledging the rambunction that’s about to unfold.

Well put. It’s a lovely Oxonian novel. I can only compare with the novels of Michael Innes and Colin Dexter, who both also use Oxford as a setting, but I just never got that feeling with them, for some reason.

It’s wonderful when a GAD-era novel captures its setting so well.  Kelley Roos does a wonderful job with New York in the handful of their books I’ve read, some of the John Bude books republished by the British Library are weak mysteries but describe the coast and villages they incur beautifully, and Freeman Wills Crofts can’t have a character go into the countryside or get on a boat without rhapsodising about the beauty of what they see…given the genre was so fixated on trains and country houses and rounds of suspects, there’s an additional enjoyment when they take a moment to sit back and draw a deep breath from their environs.  It’s not a lacuna that necessarily weakens the books if they focus on the plot, but to see someone evoke a city or the countryside so well does add an element of joy to it.

I concur wholeheartedly, though it’s not necessarily a city or countryside that needs to be described. Nero Wolfe’s brownstone as portrayed by Stout is another wonderful setting, and say what you will about Ellery Queen – which you will – they created a very fine place with Wrightsville.

Moving Toyshops 3

We have to address the two impossibilities here: a) The vanishing toyshop and b) the murder of Miss Tardy. In your discussion on The Lamp of God (1935) by Ellery Queen, you mentioned that there was one obvious way to solve the vanishing house of that story, and I think that the disappearance of the toyshop has an even more obvious solution, which is of course that someone took the time to switch out all the objects between the time when Cadogan enters at night and when he returns with the police. And I think it’s to Crispin’s credit that this is the solution and even more so that he doesn’t really make a song and dance out of it. It just turns out that this is in fact the solution.

Agreed.  I wouldn’t even consider it an impossibility, it’s too mundane.  But, yes, the low-key nature of how the move is achieved and discovered – though you wonder at the wisdom of Havering who, losing when the heirs drawing lots, having to dispose of a body and undress two shops in one evening…couldn’t they have split those jobs?!

But the murder of Miss Tardy, that is a more successful impossibility, in my view. We get a nice little map (which really isn’t necessary) that describes the layout of the top floor above the shop and where everyone was to begin with. And then when we’re told that at the time of the murder, everyone was gathered in the same room, with the stairs being watched by Sally in the shop below, we do get an impossible situation. What I enjoyed most, I think, is the way Fen rules out each and every person present on the top floor, and then he just announces that Sharman is the killer. And the explanation for how he managed to accomplish the murder is also rather good with the delayed suffocation (though also rather grisly), I thought.

Full disclosure, I actually had a memory of the impossible murder being a different murder: I thought Fen gathered everyone together again in the shop, and someone else was killed and he solved it immediately.  As it is, the impossible murder of Miss Tardy takes up a fair chunk of the book – sure, it takes a while to establish that it is impossible, but it’s a larger part of the narrative than my memory told me.  It’s a good method, too; I shall no longer gripe about this title find its way onto “best impossible crimes” lists, I promise.

And it’s clearly the most successful mystery part of the book as well. Most of the rest is just a rambling adventure, but I think that’s a very solid bit of fair play mystery writing.

It also gives rise to this wonderful passage:

Euthanasia, Cadogan thought: they all regard it as that, and not as wilful slaughter, not as the violent cutting-off of an irreplaceable compact of passion and desire and affection and will; not as a thrust into the unimagined and illimitable darkness.

For a novel that’s known for, that celebrates in, its absurdity and lightness of touch, there’s real steel and disgust in those words.  At times in his writing – see the fate of the guilty party in Holy Disorders, or his short story ‘The Pencil’ – he’s as tough as any of the ‘tough’ writers out there.  I mean, he even kills the dog…!

Quite right. Bruce Montgomery was a dual nature in real life, and I think it comes across in his writing. The juxtaposition of these elements makes them stand out even more.  But of course, the clown always cries on the inside.

Yes, the fact that Cadogan is avoiding trying to write some lyrics – “I’ve been held up for two months over a dance lyric because I can’t think of a rhyme for ‘British’… I am sick and tired of earning my living from dance lyrics” – seems to speak of Crispin/Montgomery’s own frustration that his musical works wasn’t necessarily appreciated at it might be.  It’s one of the few times in fiction that an author-insert character actually enlivens proceedings, too: who better than a poet and an English Literature don to chase down a mystery based around limericks?

This may be another indication that Crispin had less time for the writing of this novel – he took what he knew and inserted it into the novel to get it over with more quickly.

Hadn’t thought of it that way; I suppose much of these first few books would have been very familiar to him – Oxford colleges, dramatic societies, liturgical music and settings…it’s only really once you get to Love Lies Bleeding (1948), which is still based in education, though a school rather than a university, and the politics of Buried for Pleasure (1948), which is a deeply flawed book, that he’s really writing not on home turf. 

Moving Toyshop

Overall, then, I enjoyed rereading this even if the book doesn’t quite live up to my memory.  There’s plenty of era-appropriate information that I love gleaning from this sort of thing – the silencer on a gun being unfamiliar, the nude bathing areas along the river in Oxford, members of the university not being allowed to drink in public bars – and I very much enjoyed discovering the impossible aspect to be larger than I remember.  Where do you think it ranks in Crispin’s novels?  Better than Love Lies Bleeding and Frequent Hearses, not as good as Swan Song, perhaps more coherent than Holy Disorders…what’s your view?

Hard to say. I’m in the middle of my re-read, which will almost certainly make me reorder how successful they are as mysteries. Of the three I’ve already read, this would rank second. I think it’s generally worse than The Case of the Gilded Fly but on the whole better than Holy Disorders.  The former has a fine impossibility – where the solution is perhaps a little bit of a disappointment – and a fine set of characters that elevates it, whereas the latter is mostly memorable for the final frightening chapters with Fen being threatened by the unusually evil villain (he really is memorably cruel). This one is let down by all the coincidences, but as we’ve established has a good impossibility and several entertaining episodes within the rambling structure.

I am particularly looking forward to Swan Song and Love Lies Bleeding, which I remember as being better than the rest, but we’ll see how I feel in the end after having re-read them all. I know that almost each of them has at least one episode that I enjoy – Fen’s politicking in one, the part where they are sitting in a tree watching the foxhunt in another, and so on – so there’s not a single novel that I’m anticipating with trepidation.

~

Okay, that’s us, now over to you.  Do you want those Swedish translations of the verses?  Was that a Dorothy L. Sayers reference?  Should Christian be a little wary of any of Crispin’s future novels?  All this and more — indeed, anything related to this book — shall be considered fair game in the comments, including any Moving Toyshop spoilers…so have at you!

36 thoughts on “#552: Spoiler Warning 11 – The Moving Toyshop (1946) by Edmund Crispin

  1. The true impossibility in this one is interesting because it is introduced so late in the book. As I recall it, 75% of the story leads up to you uncovering that all of these people were even involved in some way, much less present at the crime scene. As such, it strikes me that you can’t even really discuss the impossibility without going into spoiler territory.

    The impossibility is nice – I’d say short story appropriate – but then wrapped in this blanket of escapades and comic bits. Your mileage will vary depending on whether the whole humor and academic thing rubs you the right way. For me, it wasn’t really my thing. It was fine – Crispin is quite readable – but didn’t have me rushing to read another one of his books. I liked it more than Love Lies Bleeding though.

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    • It’s true that it doesn’t become an impossibility until quite late, but then the book as a whole is more concerned with being a sort of one-place-to-another jaunty thriller for most of its length. As I said above, my memory is that the impossible murder was a later one and resolved very quickly, so I’m delighted to discover that it’s a thread which runs through most of the book…even if it’s not an impossible murder until very late in the day.

      And, on those grounds, I don’t think it would make a good short story. The situation needs time to marinate, to build, to take on significance. By the time you throw in the various pieces it;s all simmering nicely, and I think the essential trick works better this way. Crispin’s short stories would rarely make good novels — some of them don’t even make good short stories 🙂 — and I’m pleased that he didn’t compress this one down.

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  2. Great discussion you both and were it not 3am where I am I would probably be offering up some thoughtful responses.

    In the meantime I do want to issue a sort of half defense of Crispin’s use of coincidence. Yes, there are several big coincidences that allow the narrative to be compressed but he does openly embrace how ridiculous and unlikely these are whether it is the shop owner being sat at the next table when Fen and Cadogan say they will try to find her or the rabitty fellow coming across them in a pub and directly telling them about the inheritance.

    There is a certain degree of self-awareness running through this that strikes me as quite charming as illustrated by that scene in which Fen starts listing off chapter titles for Crispin to use. For me the coincidences play into the meta nature of the narrative, becoming acceptable because everything here is flippant and unlikely.

    Hopefully that makes some sense and won’t be something I look back at and cringe in the morning…

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    • It almost feels the other way around to me — that Crispin knows the coincidences are unlikely as all hell, but is unwilling to put in more detection to earn those moments he needs. And so he throws the frivolity in to make the coincidences seem less ridiculous.

      It’s a moot point, perhaps, but the humour did not work anything like as well for me on this reread, and that seems to be because it’s just so arbitrary. If it was built on humorous grounds to be self-aware so that the coincidences were part of the fun, surely the jokes would be more integral to the writing (like with Love Lies Bleeding, arguably, or The Case of the Gilded Fly). I think he read some Edward Lear, had a goo idea for some characters, found a loose idea to string them all together…and then realised it didn’t really work.

      Discuss!

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      • I suspect the difference here is that I found the ludicrous frequency of the coincidences (and that most occur in the pub) to be pretty hilarious in and of itself. My suspicion is that it worked better for me was simply that I haven’t read Crispin previously and so wasn’t expecting it plus I found some of the literary gags to be delightful (totally pretentious at the same time but once again I felt that was self-aware). Perhaps if I were better read in Crispin I would expect more from him and thus not be quite so impressed.

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        • Or perhaps I’ve read so much of Crispin that I’ve lost sight of that side of this writing — he is wildly variable in my estimations, and at times it feels like he swings for a particular tone and misses by a long way over and over and over again. So maybe I’m bored of him and these run far closer to his intent than I’m willing to give him credit for. Your newness to him might be what makes your perspective more accurate.

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          • Or I am just wowed by what you may be able to put in better context. Goes both ways. If it means that I have funnier Crispin in store then it’s a win either way.

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      • Oh, one more thing (for now). On the coincidence that he tries the door of the shop at all when it is closed isn’t quite as strange as I think it reads now. The shop’s awning still being up in the middle of the night stands out because they would typically be lowered overnight. It is as eye-catching as if all the lights inside are on and given that he is looking for a place to furtively crash for the night and is planning to try to find an unlocked room on campus it makes a sort of sense that he may instinctively just give the door a try. At least to me. 🙂

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        • Hmmm, yeah, okay, hadn’t considered that. Still another coincidence, though, and all the more reason it’s foolish to have one man disposing of a body and packing and unpacking two shops in the course of a few hours…

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  3. Having re-read this recently in light of your pending spoiler post, my thoughts are:

    1. I had remembered absolutely nothing about it and I’m not sure how much I’ll remember going forward.
    2. I was surprised as you were by how little detection there is.
    3. I agree with The Green Capsule above that the impossible element would be better in a short story mainly because there is no way that the reader could solve it.
    4. I have no idea why this title is often held up as Crispin’s best/most recommended work. The only others I’ve read are Gilded Fly (alright) and Love Lies Bleeding (very enjoyable) and they are both better than this.

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    • Because this was the first Crispin I read, it’s always stood out in my mind as the best, with each title I went on to read feeling like a case of diminishing returns. But, having no read it again, I must agree that it doesn’t strike me as his best work — that honour probably going to Swan Song or Gilded Fly. But since my memory was faulty here, and I haven’t read either of those in about as long, I’m doubtless also wrong there, too…

      The detection is an interesting one, because it makes me realise how difficult detection actually is to write. if you need your plot to encompass the range of ideas this has — and it’s a gloriously creative piece of plotting — then somehow each scene needs to follow onto the next, and with so little to go on (though the fact that both shops are owned by the same person is where any sane detective would start…) Crispin probably made a rod for his own back. It’s like those impossibilities that are so damn impossible that only one explanation remains, and that’s a disappointing one.

      He uses environment well in all his books, however — be it witches in Holy Disorders, schools in Love Lies Bleeding, or politics in the otherwise disappointing Buried for Pleasure — and this does feel like a uniquely Oxonian novel. Maybe the dreaming spires were considered sufficient to allow this sort of frivolity to run rampant, and with 70+ years of distance there’s something lost to us that made it marvellous at the time.

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    • “I have no idea why this title is often held up as Crispin’s best/most recommended work.” I certainly am in no position to answer that (I’m only one person, plus my Crispin reading, though I think comprehensive, has been spaced out at long intervals between books), but I would probably place it high myself, simply because I found it so much fun to read. His kind of humor happens to be mine as well; and the idea of rejecting it because it’s arbitrary, or not properly worked into the structure, is incomprehensible to me. I’ve still had the pleasure of reading it, and that’s its own reward.

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  4. Very interesting post! I’ve read four Gervase Fens so far, including this. My favourite was Buried for Pleasure but I’ve enjoyed them all. Was at RHS Wisley recently and in their excellent book department I spotted a copy of Beware of the Trains, which I duly nabbed. Made my day. I have Glimpses of the Moon on my tbr pile but must set about finding copies of the rest at some stage.

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    • Beware of the Trains is a good collection, Cath, though I enjoyed the single-idea stories in Fen Country far more. The slightly longer shorts in BotT give Crispin more elbow room for his style to shine through, but the stories fell flat for my tastes.

      But, then, I really, really disliked Buried for Pleasure, so hopefully you’ll disagree with me and find BotT a rich delight!

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    • I’m a short story guy, as JJ mentions above, so of course I like “Beware of the Trains” quite a bit. There’s a wonderfully evocative story in it called “Deadlock” that I would recommend to everyone. It’s non-series, but about ten million times better than the also non-series and oft cited “We know you’re busy writing, but we thought you wouldn’t mind if we just dropped in for a minute” (which is in the other Crispin collection “Fen Country”).

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      • Deadlock is, I seem to remember, the only story in the collection I actively disliked. Not that anyone should infer anything from this, but I remember it being waaaaaaay too long and not worth the effort. So perhaps it’s due a reread, because Christian’s tastes usually don’t diverge that far from mine…

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  5. I’ll have to come back and read through this at some point in the future. I read the book in the past but (naturally for me) I remember nothing at all now!

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  6. The mystery elements are, for the most part, unsuccessful. The movement of the plot is rarely instigated. Things just sort of pop-up along the way. And that lawyer’s James-Bond moment when he explains his sinister plan! No amount of charm can make that scene work.

    I thought the humor worked wonders as a band-aid to the (sometimes) limp mystery elements. It’s far more of a character comedy with a mystery playing in the background. The two leads were so likable that I didn’t mind most of the non-existent clues. The broad humor towards the end (the chases) wasn’t bad. Yeah, this was enjoyable. However, reading this discussion has made me like it a bit less. Perhaps, I should get rid of my copy and not risk a second reading.

    You’re both right about the marvelous sense of place. Perhaps I was willing to buy (forgive) the many coincidences because they all take place in a wonderfully realized Oxford.

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    • However, reading this discussion has made me like it a bit less

      Er, I don’t think it was out intent to put people off. Good heavens, Christian, this has gone very wrong indeed… 😕

      Humour as a band aid is an interesting observation, because I often feel this is something that substandard mysteries try, and for some reason it hadn’t occurred to me in this case. I’m always wary when a book starts out very funny, because it feels like it’s getting on your good side before you realise it’s about to pick your pocket. I’ve just had this exact experience with Post Mortem by Guy Cullingford, a nom de plume of Constance Taylor: the opening three chapters are joyfully hilarious, and then the laughs start to dry up along with the plot…but it hopes it’s done enough to get by on charm alone (not for me, alas).

      I suppose I’m so sued to Crispin being frivolous that it never occurred to me he might be papering over gaps. If anything, I’ve come away from this with an even greater appreciation of when he was serious, and how wonderful his serious writing can be,

      As for the setting, it’s wonderful how fully he captures such a real place by making up so much of it. Quite an achievement!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Just a couple of quick notes from my side:
    1. I finished reading it recently.
    2. It was my second encounter with a Crispin book. Much better than Frequent Hearses. Overall I quite enjoyed it, and I’m looking forward to reading some of
    the titles mentioned.
    3. Great post. Thanks.

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    • Oh, it’s definitely better than Frequent Hearses/Sudden Vengeance. Glad you enjoyed the book and the post, always nice to get a discussion going on these sorts of things.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. One bit that I recall taking me by surprise was how much action there was – I simply hadn’t anticipated it from Crispin. I recall a tense scene with some thugs where it seemed like a real possibility that characters might get executed, an incredibly sad scene with a dog, and then the whole action sequence at the end that felt like it would be at home in a spy thriller. I think it was the whole literary reputation of Crispin’s work that made me think this was going to be a different style of story.

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  9. If I may cross over media for a moment, what did you think of the final scene, on the roundabout (or, as we US types call it, the merry-go-round)? It was good enough for Alfred Hitchcock to take the idea and use it to close the film of “Strangers on a Train,” without any on-screen credit for Crispin – I do seem to remember reading somewhere that Hitchcock had, at least, bought the rights, but don’t quote me on that. As an action scene, I think it’s an awfully good one!

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    • As I think someone commented elsewhere, there’s a surprising amount of action and a real paucity of detection in this, so come the end I was just sort of hoping it would wrap up without me finding too much to dislike.

      My real problem with the all-action finale — which is true in most instances in which it’s used, be it in film or print or whatever — is that the peril is false peril: you know the Hero will survive and the Bad Guy will be captured and/or face comeuppance, which I think is why the traditional intellectual exposition of a puzzle plot appeals to me so much: there’s still scope there to be surprised.

      No doubt Crispin wrote the scene well, but it’s not really to my taste — and I’m intrigued by the fact that I didn’t mention this in our discussion above. Thanks for teasing that out, Les!

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  10. Pingback: My Book Notes: The Moving Toyshop, 1946 (Gervase Fen Mystery #3) by Edmund Crispin – A Crime is Afoot

  11. I think it’s a shame that this book is built up so much as one of the greats, one of the best and most inventive works in detective fiction… it’s certainly inventive, but as you say, it’s mostly the invention of a farce, where events simply happen to the characters, as opposed to the tricky invention of brilliant GAD. I was left disappointed – it certainly was an enjoyable read, but I kept waiting for “the good bit”, for everything to fall into place. And it’s not that sort of book, and doesn’t benefit from reading it with that expectation.
    I preferred my other Crispin read, Gilded Fly, much more, and thought that really was brilliant sometimes.

    Regarding Deadlock – that pretty much is mostly atmosphere. The detection bit turns around one simple thing and it almost felt intrusive to have a conventional “detective clue” in this melancholy tale. I loved it 😉

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    • It’s interesting for me to reflect on how much I enjoyed this — or how much I remember enjoying it, I should say — first time, given that it was one of my earliest samples of non-Christie GAD, and how hilarious I found it to be. Having since immersed myself in the often very witty prose and events put out by authors from that era, I think you’re point about farce is spot on; there’s something eye-catching about the ludicrous nature of what goes on which isn’t necessarily good writing but is going to capture the imagination of the ingenue. The lack of “the good bit” where that retrospective inevitability of what’s gone on is very obvious once the reader is better read in the genre. Makes me wonder what people actually made of it at the time (certainly it seems that Crispin never returned to this technicolor absurdity again in his novels, trying to ground them in a slightly more sombre tone and actions).

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  12. Pingback: The Moving Toyshop (1946) by Edmund Crispin – Dead Yesterday

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