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?
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…!
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.
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.
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.