To finish off our month long look at academic mysteries I decided to return to a book I read early on in my crime fiction reading and one which I love. The Moving Toyshop (1946) was Crispin’s third Gervase Fen mystery and I only recently found out that Robert Bryce Montgomery’s use of the Crispin pseudonym came from one of the characters in Michael Innes’ Hamlet, Revenge! (1937).
The book begins in a light hearted and comic way with Richard Cadogan, a well-known but not much bought poet trying to persuade his publisher, Mr Spode (nod to P. G. Wodehouse perhaps?) to give him £50 so he can go on holiday to the glitzy location of Oxford. Like many a foolhardy fictional protagonist he is ‘sick and tired’ of his usual life. He ‘crave[s]… romance’ and adventure. He fears he is ‘getting old and stale.’ Eventually he gets the money he needs and he heads off to Oxford on a late night train, only to end up having to cadge a lift to the outskirts of Oxford when his connecting train fails to arrive. Whilst prowling Oxford in the dark, looking for a student digs to crash in, he comes across a toyshop door which appears open. Eager to be a good citizen and to also satisfy his curiosity, Cadogan goes inside the shop to alert the owner of the fact. Here Crispin’s expertise in understatement comes to the fore when Cadogan is faced with the alarming sight of a dead body, which he happens to trip over. But before he has a chance to raise the alarm about this corpse of an elderly woman, an unknown assailant temporarily puts Cadogan out of action. When he comes to, he races off to the police but when he returns with them he is in for a shock. The toyshop is no longer there! Instead there is a grocer’s in its place and of course there is no body to be seen.
Disbelieved by the police Cadogan turns to his old tutor, Gervase Fen who gets to the heart of the problem when he asks why would someone want to change a grocer’s shop into a toyshop during the night? Through following various leads Fen and Cadogan manage to identify the name of the victim, Emilia Tardy, though in the course of doing so, Cadogan becomes a wanted man after being misconstrued as a burglar. Tardy is an independent spinster who spends her time travelling but she is arguably also ‘a lonely woman who disappearance wouldn’t cause very much surprise.’ It is also the case that she has become the heir to a large fortune, though there is a snag. Her aunt whose money it is, hated her passion for travelling, so therefore instructed her solicitor to only publish the information of her death and the legacy in English newspapers. Tardy has 6 months after her aunt’s death to contact the solicitor, otherwise the money goes elsewhere. Fen and Cadogan question the solicitor who innocently says that Tardy never made contact. But Fen and the readers alike have a strong feeling that there is more to the solicitor than meets the eye. Fen is also interested in who the money goes to after Tardy and the answer to this question is a bizarre one, leading Fen and his many companions on many outlandish and farcical chases in and around Oxford, which are often full of misunderstandings and it is not surprising that one of them involving a considerable amount of the student body becomes likened to a fox hunt. Each chase leads to a further piece of the puzzle concerning Tardy’s death and one of the brilliant aspects of this case is that seemingly those involved in the crime are wondering the same thing as Fen: who killed Tardy?
The answer to this question leads to a final chase sequence which begins in the usual comical manner, but soon takes on a more surreal and cinematic quality as Fen is pitted against the killer on a dangerously fast fairground carousel. Thematically and physically this is a memorable juxtaposing scene and I can understand why Hitchcock used it in his adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train (1950; 1951 for film).
Satirise in The Moving Toyshop
For anyone who has read any of Crispin’s stories, suggesting they are satirical is hardly new, but in re-reading this story I think what surprised me was the range his satire has. From the beginning of the book we have the figure of poet satirised in the character of Cadogan, who likens himself to Wordsworth but actually makes his living through writing dance lyrics. Equally the archetypal character of the hero or the man of adventure is also undermined through Cadogan as he starts out wanting excitement and action but rapidly regrets this and ultimately ends up deciding that being middle aged is not such a bad thing after all.
Adventure thrillers are also satirised more widely in this story as the plot contains many thriller tropes such as chases and the protagonists being wrongly wanted by the police. Yet these aspects, particularly the chases have their thriller connotations undercut, mainly by Fen. For example during one chase Fen and his companions tail criminals in a lorry and due to their being more people than seats, Fen is forced to have an ageing don on his knee, which becomes even more farcical when they do an emergency stop and the don in question ends up around Fen’s neck, ‘clinging on… like the Old Man of the Sea.’
Since The Moving Toyshop is set in an academic city, it is not unexpected that it comes under the satirical and mocking eye of Crispin who describes it as ‘the one place in Europe where a man may do anything, however eccentric, and arouse no interest or emotion at all.’ There is also a humorous dichotomy between the female and male students, where although on first glance the female students may come across as the figures of fun being described as ‘cycling along the streets in droves, absurdly gowned and clutching complicated files, or hovering about libraries,’ they are in fact in comparison to the male students far more studious. Whilst female students may arise first in the morning, male students trail behind ‘putting a pair of trousers, a coat, and a scarf over their pyjamas, shambling across quadrangles to sign lists, and shambling back to bed again.’ Although female students don’t feature prominently in this story, I think in the character of Sally Carstairs, Crispin does create a female character who is more than an appendage to a male character and who is quite determined, sensible and knows her own mind.
It goes without saying really that academics are satirised and none more so than in Gervase Fen himself, though as I talk about later, there is more to him than this. For instance, academics are often shown to be impractical and Fen’s entry into the book embodies this stereotype as he drives erratically into a bush. His attempts at car maintenance are also less than desirable: ‘He frowned, took a hammer from the back seat, opened the bonnet and hit something inside.’ He is of course also said to have ‘eccentricities’, though it is mentioned that they ‘were not on the traditional donnish pattern.’ His erratic nature is also reflected in his personal appearance as ‘his dark hair, sedulously plastered down with water, stuck up in spikes at the crown.’ He is not a figure of ridicule but I think the prestige which may sometimes be conferred on professors and dons is undercut through him. For example Cadogan says to him:
‘Of course you weren’t a professor, when I saw you last. The University had more sense.’
Fen: ‘I became a professor… because of my tremendous scholarly abilities and my acute and powerful mind.’
Cadogan: ‘You wrote to me at the time that it was only a matter of pulling a few moth-eaten strings.’
This undercutting can also be seen in the way that Fen is sometimes given childlike characteristics such as sulking, needing to be at the centre of events and Cadogan at one point also says he is ‘behaving like a child of two.’ His irresponsibleness is perhaps also a part of this, as well as part of his overall maverick persona.
The satirising of the detective fiction genre itself is again another expected aspect of Crispin’s work and one which I think he does very well, especially through his use of meta fictional comments. Here are a few favourites of mine:
Fen: ‘Don’t spurn coincidence in that casual way… I know your sort. You say the most innocent encounter in a detective novel is unfair, and yet you’re always screaming out about having met someone abroad who lives in the next parish, and what a small world it is.’
Cadogan: ‘Well I am going to the police… If there’s anything I hate, it’s the sort of book in which characters don’t go to the police when they’ve no earthly reason for not doing so.’
Fen: ‘The pubs are open…’
Fen: ‘Let’s go left… After all, Gollancz is publishing this book.’
There is also a moment where Fen says that ‘we must put the heat on that broad,’ a phrase which reeks of hardboiled detective fiction and is therefore hugely incongruous with an Oxford don. Additionally, when temporarily bound up Fen finds the time to come with some detective story titles for Crispin: ‘A Don Dares Death… Murder Stalks the University… The Blood on the Mortarboard.’ Crispin also plays around with Golden Age detective fiction tropes such as the unlikeliest suspect and red herrings.
Other areas of satire also include things such as the BBC and through the figure of a lorry driver, “highbrow” literature and culture is also taken down a peg or two. I think what I also liked about the comedy in this novel was the way Crispin uses universal themes and how the punch lines do not always come from the protagonists. For example, when Cadogan is angling for some money from Spode, Spode tries to forestall him by suggesting he comes to stay with him for a holiday. Cadogan asks whether Spode can give him ‘adventure, excitement, lovely women?’ to which Spode struggling to promise these things, replies ‘Of course there’s my wife…’ Usually this kind of comment would come across as seedy, but in Crispin’s hands it doesn’t become so, as the reader already has a good understanding of Spode’s character and know he doesn’t wear the trousers in any relationships marital or otherwise. Human nature is also satirised during one of the many chases in this book which culminates in some swimming facilities. The swimmers rather than challenge why half of St Christopher’s college seems to be pursuing a man, observe instead believing it to be ‘an ungraduated rag in mid-career’ and ‘some… even len[d] their support to the business’ and Crispin concludes that this ‘is another testimony to the well-known power of majority opinion.’ Although the narrator is an omniscient one, it is also a strongly personal one, with our unknown storyteller almost becoming a character in their own right. This is especially visible in the finale scene on the carousel where the narrator admits that they are unsure as to Fen’s motivations.
The Other Side of Fen
One of the main things I took away from this re-read is that I found there was more to Fen than being a comical don. Although he may makes allusions to Alice and Wonderland (1865), saying ‘Oh my dear paws’ and ‘Oh my fur and whiskers,’ (and to be fair a reader may justifiably feel like they have gone down a rabbit hole when reading this book), I would suggest that there is a duality to Fen, which does have a darker aspect. This duality is found in comments such as ‘belying all outward appearance, there was something extremely reliable about Fen.’ Cadogan also says that:
‘I suppose he is if you’re prepared for the ordinary kind of don. But underneath – well, I shouldn’t like to have him as an enemy. There’s something one can only describe as formidable about him – not on the surface of course. There he’s engagingly naïve.’
And it is this ‘formidable’ aspect which I found more prominent in my re-reading. During the investigation, Cadogan is surprised at Fen’s more abrasive side when he bluntly tells a suspect that ‘a criminal has no rights in any sane society.’ Cadogan responds to this with bewilderment finding this ‘harsh[ness]… a new and unfamiliar aspect of his character.’ He initially wonders whether it is just ‘an expedient pose,’ but this side of Fen comes up again in the book with the narrator commenting on the fact that ‘there was not a trace of emotion of any kind in his voice.’ The biggest example of course is during the carousel scene when the killer pointlessly fires at Fen:
‘That wanton useless act roused in Fen something which was neither heroism, nor sentimentality, nor righteous indignation, nor even instinctive revulsion… it is difficult to put into words what, actually, it was, since it is not a common emotion in mankind, and since it lies at the basis of Fen’s personality. I suppose that as near as anything would be to say that it was a kind of passionless sense of justice and of proportion, a deeply rooted objection to waste.’
Fen’s motivations here forgo those sometimes found in thrillers and arguably reverts back to the world of Holmes, where detection is not infiltrated by emotions and has an atmosphere of scientific rationalism. Though I suppose I am wondering what Fen is regarding as the ‘waste’ here. Waste of life? Waste of a bullet?
Incidentally, Fen is also described as having ‘unexpected athletic ability’ and he describes himself as ‘an adventurer manqué, born out of my time,’ so it unsurprising that critics such Jean A Coakley have said he is ‘an irrepressible Renaissance man’ (Coakley, 1999: 109). I also found it an intriguing thought that Fen might be ‘the personification of everything an Oxford don might wish to be,’ (James, 2008) an intellectual and a man of action, in particular a man of action who does not have to pay heed to social conventions and rules.
Re-reading this book has reminded me why I enjoy Crispin’s work. I like the university milieu he creates where proctors enter the pubs to check up on whether university students are inside. I also liked the literary games Fen plays such as coming up with unreadable books. A character I have always remembered well from this story is a student named Hoskins who seems quite the ladies’ man. His secret weapon is that he always has chocolates to hand, which make his female companions instantly amiable and Fen even uses Hoskins’ talent to get a female witness to talk. I think it is the absurdity of this situation which sticks in my head, as although I am keen on my lindor chocolate, I don’t think it has overridden my reasoning powers (well not yet at any rate). This re-read also brought to light for me the darker side to this novel, as there is an undercurrent of violence and base human desires, which punctures the otherwise comic atmosphere of the novel, such as when a dog is shot or when Fen and his companions are not above repeatedly ducking a suspect’s head in the murky Isis river to encourage them to talk. Moreover, this is what makes me disagree with James’ (2008) notion that ‘the very word violence seems out of place in these stories.’ The violence is there, culminating of course in that immortal show down at the end of the book. This aspect of the book reminded me strongly of a TV serial Francis Durbridge wrote called A Game of Murder (1966) (one I would highly recommend). It was comprised of short episodes which had a strong vibe of dark humour, as the central character gets into more and more awkward positions and a key element of this series was that at the end of each episode (apart from the last one of course), it would end on a cliff hanger, invariably one involving a body falling out of an unexpected space. A similar atmosphere is achieved in this book when a secondary corpse occurs.
Overall this is was a fun and funny read, with an eventful plot and fast pace, orchestrated by an engaging central sleuth, who I think everyone wishes they had as their tutor at university.
Coakley, J. (1999). Edmund Crispin. In: Herbert, R. The Oxford Companion to Crime and Mystery Writing. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 109.
James, R. (2008). Great British Fictional Detectives A-Z. Barnsley: Pen and Sword Vooks.