The Moving Toyshop
Victor Gollancz, 1946
The Moving Toyshop has one of the most enjoyable, intriguing and beautifully clever opening chapters imaginable. Our hero, bored poet Richard Cadogan (enough of an everyman to be relatable and unconventional enough to be interesting) gets bored enough for a holiday, drunk as a result and, lost in Oxford at the dead of night, he stumbles across a dead body in a toyshop that has mysteriously vanished when he returns the next morning. For the experienced Golden Age connoisseur, something about this seems vaguely familiar and eventually all becomes clear. If The Moving Toyshop were a stick of rock (and Crispin in any other form would taste as sweet…) it would have the letters G. K. C. running through it. It has the same imagination, the same erudition, the same sense of the fantastical in the everyday (truly, perhaps, what magical realism ought to mean). But Crispin has both the same strengths and the same failings. Featuring the quintessential Oxford don detective Gervase Fen with a poet as the everyman and the title taken from The Rape of the Lock the book was always going to be impressive, with the imagination of Chesterton and the intellectual nous of Lady Dorothy about it. Unfortunately, The Moving Toyshop lacks one essential thing: a plot.
Because this is not a detective story, nor should it ultimately be judged as one. Oddly, in character it’s far closer to the modern-day thrillers that this site normally deplores. The force of the plot is not the puzzle, which is dispensed with in a paragraph halfway through the book. The murderer is never hidden, the only reason for the murder is money and there is no justification for the crimes beyond capital-E Evil. What it is, instead, is a perfectly enjoyable romp around Golden Age Oxford in the company of Cadogan, Fen, and a D.H. Lawrence-quoting truck driver.
There are many moments of hilarity, some of them intentional:
‘When I was an undergraduate I made love to a girl in here…I remember I wasn’t feeling well and didn’t put much zest into the business. I don’t suppose she enjoyed it especially, poor thing.’
But then, the novel was first published in 1946, and the above lines are so blatant that one can only suspect Crispin was in on it and, when the author is laughing at their own jokes so hard, it’s often funnier for them than it is for the reader. And that sums up the one, overwhelming problem: self-indulgence. So, when we get to the main character declaiming, at the climax, ‘He that outlives this day, and comes safe home, will stand a tip-toe when this day is named, and rouse him in the name of Crispin’ we’re less than impressed.
This is not to say that the various asides aren’t funny: they are, often hilariously so. The main characters play ‘unreadable books’ in their spare time; hired thugs chasing Our Heroes boom out ‘and thine is the kingdom’ at the wrong moment in Chapel; Fen continues a telephone debate about subtleties in Measure for Measure at the most inopportune moments possible; on being told that a character has read all the books in his mobile library, Cadogan quips that he’s “getting too big for his Boots”.
And this is what the novel is: a very amusing selection of scenes, quips and commentaries from Edmund Crispin. We get lines like this, from a lorry driver:
“‘We’ve lost touch with sex – the grand primeval energy; the dark, mysterious, source of life.’ Not, he added confidentially, ‘that I’ve ever exactly felt that – beggin’ your pardon – when I’ve been in bed with the old woman.’”
Or exchanges such as:
“‘So you see, it’s by such means that the moneyed classes, gambling on the Stock Exchange, ruin millions of poor investors.’
‘But surely the poor investors were gambling on the Stock Exchange too.’
‘Oh, no, that’s quite different…’”
And every observation is quick to the bone, (almost)every joke is funny. But that alone isn’t enough to carry the endless pages of characters running aimlessly round and round and round Oxford again and again and again.
The novel contains precisely one character, eccentric detective (aren’t they all…) Gervase Fen. The viewpoint characters / straight men / gay young amateurs dancing their way through their cases are boring and forgettable in the extreme. The murderer’s motives are the most boring imaginable: Evil (with a capital E), mixed in with old fashioned Love of Money. The detective story is secondary to the characters and the setting, which makes for a very bad detective story. The most fascinating aspect, that of the toyshop itself, is dealt with mundanely within a paragraph. We spend the rest of the story in a thriller, as we follow our heroes in a life-or-death chase around Oxford, a far too genteel setting to feel any sense of peril, for reasons which…get gradually more and more confused. Like Chesterton, the reader leaves with the feeling that the author had one brilliant idea (the toyshop), perhaps even one brilliant scene, but then wanted to spend the rest of the time doing what he pleased. In Chesterton, this is philosophical musings. In Crispin, this is wandering around Oxford on a sunny afternoon.
And it’s a reasonably diverting ride. But nothing more.