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by Edmund Crispin
Penguin Classic Crime, June 1993
224 pages
ISBN: 0140088172

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

THE MOVING TOYSHOP is a delightful farce, provided you're willing to suspend any addiction to the plausible. Condensed example: "Describe the man." "Well, I couldn't see his face, but he was thin and they called him 'Doctor.'" "So we're looking for a thin doctor in the Oxford area. I know, let's ask a hypochondriac who's been to all the doctors in Oxford. [Rather an unwarranted assumption here in the first place that in a city full of D.Phils. it has to be a medical doctor]. Hypochondriac says, "A thin doctor? Of course. That will be Dr. Soandso."

My comment: OTOH, is this much different from some novels today where the detective goes to a computer and asks for the name of a thin doctor or the equivalent in New York City or elsewhere, and gets just the right one?

What I don't understand is how THE MOVING TOYSHOP failed to become a movie or stage play. It's a natural for both. If I were practiced as a playwright, I'd do it myself.

The story begins with a poet, Richard Cadogan, who takes a holiday in Oxford for a lark. Arriving at night, he walks into the town and somehow finds himself seemingly alone in a toyshop. Then he finds a murdered woman, but he wasn't alone after all, for someone knocks him unconscious. On awakening, the woman's body is gone. He leaves by a window and later is amazed to see that the toyshop has become a grocery store.

So he goes to his friend, a blusteringly eccentric Oxford don named Gervase Fen, who takes over the case without the blink of an eye. They assemble a gang of misfits (so to speak), including an elderly whisky-imbibing, kibitzing professor who could have been played beautifully by Jackie Wright, the little elderly bald-headed guy on the Benny Hill show. They find five suspects (including a thin doctor) who seem to come out of the walls. Well, four suspects, because one of them is a beautiful young uneducated self-declared-innocent shop clerk who seems to be able to hold her own with the Oxford dons and becomes more prepossessing as the story moves on.

There are several merry chases, some featuring Fen's car, an older cousin to Jack Benny's Maxwell. Through it all we see (if we can peer through all the haze from the constant cigarette smoking) a lot of Oxford, including a lot of drinking symposia taking place in a hotel that I take to be the Randolph, although called something else. Fen is a cantankerous curmudgeon who tells off the chief constable and treats lawbreakers with considerable physical disrespect, a virtual he-who-must-be-obeyed (he treats the good guys with only verbal disrespect).

All in all, it's a jolly good romp. We learn among other things how not to make a will, as well as how to find people we're chasing when they disappear (Says Fen, Well, might as well turn left, since this book is being published by Gollancz). There's no need for a deus ex machina, but if there were, when the machine were lowered it would turn out to have Fen in it. There are surprising references to sex (not explicit, but certainly understood) for a 1946 mystery. The story moves fast, the characters are engaging, and there's enough suspense to hold one's interest. Written in the third person, it also has a bit of autorial intrusion, a la Victorian novels. However, it's probably not for people who don't believe in Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, or the Great Pumpkin. But for those who took James Barrie's advice not to grow up [completely], it's delightful. It's also great for those who like their mystery stories the way they used to be. There's a dated appeal about this one that is oh-so-nostalgically delicious.

Reviewer's notes:Edmund Crispin was a pseudonym of Robert Bruce Montgomery. The review is based on the original hardcover published by Gollancz in 1946

Reviewed by Eugene Aubrey Stratton, July 2002

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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