The holiday season is synonymous with Santa Claus and the toys he brings. Mystery novel enthusiasts can celebrate Yuletide by reading about the toyshop murder in Edmund Crispin’s The Moving Toyshop. Edmund Crispin (pseudonym for Robert Bruce Montgomery) may not be a household name but he can be found on The Times’s 50 Greatest Crime Writers and The Telegraph’s 50 Crime Writers to Read Before You Die lists. “Elegant and accomplished Oxford plotter,” is the phrase The Times uses to describe him.
This multi-talented individual was not only a detective writer but also a composer, anthologist, organ scholar, mystery fiction reviewer, and choirmaster. He studied modern languages at Oxford; wrote scores for films; composed choral and chamber works; edited six anthologies; and wrote nine novels, two short story collections, and numerous film scripts and radio plays.
The Moving Toyshop – the third of nine Gervase Fen novels – can be found on three mystery novel “best lists”: the Independent Mystery Bookseller Association’s 100 Favorite Mysteries of the 20th Century, the Mystery Writers of America’s Top 100 Mystery Novels of All Time, and the Crime Writers Association of Great Britain’s Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time. This 1946 novel is still in print today and is generally considered Crispin’s best novel.
The Moving Toyshop focuses on the murder of an elderly heiress. Poet Richard Cadogan stumbles across her corpse in an Oxford toyshop. When he returns to the shop the next day, he finds a grocery store in its place. Cadogan turns to the Oxford literature professor and amateur detective, Gervase Fen, to help solve the mystery. This singular detective, observes The Times is a “civilized, eccentric and fiercely analytical sleuth, . . . one of the key figures of the genre” (Berlins 2008). The narrative itself is fast paced and intricately plotted.
Like the academic settings of Amanda Cross’s and Colin Dexter’s novels (see my blog on The Way through the Woods), the Oxford surroundings of the Gervase Fen mysteries lend an air of urbanity and erudition to the stories. What distinguishes a Crispin novel is its unique combination of cultured world and farcical humour. Rollicking car chases, tipsy characters, absurd situations, and witty dialogue dominate these books.
As The Telegraph points out, Crispin “spoofed post-war crime fiction with great larkiness. His dotty professor and amateur sleuth, Gervase Fen, even admits he’s a fictional character.” Literary allusions are a constant source of humour in The Moving Toyshop. In one amusing scene, a page-boy enters a bar:
“Telephone call for Mr. T. S. Eliot!” he piped. “Mr. T. S. Eliot?”Critic Julian Symons identifies Crispin as a farceur – a writer “for whom the business of fictional murder was endlessly amusing” (1992, 119). British farceurs such as Edmund Crispin, A. A. Milne, Philip MacDonald, Ronald A. Knox (see his ten rules of Golden Age detective fiction), and Michael Innis wrote during the interwar years. In their novels, murder is depicted as a game, not a grim reality.
To everyone’s surprise, Fen said “That’s me,” got up, and went out, pursued by the interested gaze of the other persons in the bar. (165)
New York Times reviewer, Allen J. Hubin, concludes that The Moving Toyshop is “one of the cleverest and most subtly humorous stories” in print (1970). Readers who enjoy light-hearted but skilfully plotted Golden Age mysteries will thoroughly enjoy The Moving Toyshop. “Crispin dispatched his narratives,” claims The Times, “with a vividly conjured cloistered world as the fulcrum of Fen’s investigations. Plotting was always Crispin’s chef-d’ouevre, and his novels afford a variety of pleasures”(Berlins 2008).
Crispin, Edmund. The Moving Toyshop. 1946. Elmsford, NY: London House & Maxwell, 1970.
Hubin, Allen J. “Criminals at Large.” New York Times. April 5, 1970.
Symons, Julian. Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel. New York: Mysterious Press, 1992.