Published: Apr 29, 2012
Having come late to mysteries, I thought to read some classics.
So I found an old Penguin edition of Edmund Crispin’s “The Moving Toyshop,” which P.D. James called one of the five best crime novels ever writ. [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here.]
I poured some sherry. Set out a plate of biscuits. Turned off the BBC. And….
“The Moving Toyshop” begins with a noted English poet named Richard Cadogan, who cadges the awesome sum of fifty pounds from his publisher and heads off to a vacation in --- of all places --- Oxford. He arrives late at night and stumbles into an unlocked toy shop, but before he can make himself comfortable he finds a freshly-murdered female.
Very droll. I could follow it. Just a question of identifying the killer.
Hit on the head, Cadogan wakes hours later in another room and rushes to the police. They hurry to the toy shop. No body. In fact, no toy shop --- it’s a grocery. As it always was, apparently.
So off Cadogan rushes to a professor of English Literature, Gervase Fen.
Insults begin promptly.
“It was you who wrote about the first poems I ever published: ‘This is a book everyone can afford to be without.’”
“Ha!” said Fen, pleased. “Very pithy I was in those days. Well, how are you, dear fellow?”
“Terrible. Of course you weren’t a professor when I saw you last. The university had more sense.”
“I became a professor,” Fen answered firmly, “because of my tremendous scholarly abilities and powerful mind.”
“You wrote to me at the time it was only a matter of pulling a few moth-eaten strings.”
Insults finished, Cadogan announces that he has “lost a toy shop.” And off he and Fen go, into a story so improbable that the people they seek are named after the nonsense poems of Edward Lear. Someone is muttering. About what? “I was making up titles for Crispin.” A blonde shop girl has a favorite poet: Andrew Marvell. And try this for dialogue, when Cadogan and Fen find themselves locked up by some villains:
“Let’s play ‘Unreadable Books.’”
“All right. ‘Ulysses.’”
“Yes. ‘Tristram Shandy.’”
“Yes. ‘The Golden Bowl.’”
“No, I like that.”
“Good God. ‘Clarissa,’ then.”
If you were an English major and graduated before, oh, 1980, this is funny stuff. If you don’t get the references, no biggie --- it’s plenty hard just to figure out what’s going on. I, for one, couldn’t follow the plot.
What I could grasp is that Edmund Crispin was having a damned good time pushing the limits of improbability. And that, I suspect, is why veteran thriller readers so admire this book --- Crispin has a romp, and he gets away with it.
But then, there is no Edmund Crispin.
The author is Robert Bruce Montgomery, an English composer of vocal and choral music who, for a few years, dabbled in mysteries. Under a pseudonym, he wrote a few books about Professor Fen, reviewed more for the London papers, and died young, largely due to alcoholism.
Things are not what they seem.