Thursday, June 23, 2022

The Moving Toyshop: a very short review

About eighty years ago, Bruce Montgomery, under the pen name of Edmund Crispin, wrote a series of detective novels featuring Gervase Fen of Oxford. Much has changed in the intervening years, yet Crispin's The Moving Toyshop is still quite enjoyable and entertaining.

The Moving Toyshop is, by turns, silly, exciting, intriguing, amusing, and sexy. At times it often felt like "what Wodehouse would write, if Wodehouse wrote amateur detective stories set in Oxford." Which is no bad thing!

When Crispin so desires, he can write a hard-boiled detective scene with the best of them:

Trapped in the pitch blackness of that musty-smelling passage, his self-control suddenly failed. He knew there was a soft, padding step coming towards him. He knew that he threw the empty torch blindly, and heard it strike the wall. And he sensed, rather than saw, the blazing beam of light which shone out from behind. Then there was a dull, enormous concussion, his head seemed to explode in a flare of blinding scarlet, and there was nothing but a high screaming like the wind in wires and a bright breen globe that fell twisting and diminishing, to annihilation in inky darkness.

And Crispin can be silly:

'Golly,' said Sally when he had finished, and added a little shyly: 'You do believe what I told you, don't you? I know it sounds fantastic, but - '

'My dear Sally, this is such a wild business I'd believe you if you said you were the Lady of Shalott.'

'You do talk funnily, don't you?' But the words were swept away in the rush of wind and the din of the engine.

'What?' said Cadogan.

Wilkes turned round in the front seat. He could hear better when there was a noise going on. 'She says you talk funnily.'

'Do I?' It had not previously occurred to Cadogan that he talked funnily, the thought disturbed him.

'I didn't mean to be rude,' Sally said. 'What do you do? What's your job, I mean?'

'I'm a poet.'

'Golly,' Sally was impressed. 'I've never met a poet before. You don't look like one.'

And Crispin can be sexy:

A girl had just emerged from an alley-way which ran behind one of the shops in the Cornmarket. She was about twenty-three, tall, with a finely-proportioned, loose-limbed body, naturally golden hair, big candid blue eyes, high cheek bones, and a firmly moulded chin. Her scarlet mouth broke into an impish smile as she called back to someone in the alley-way. She wore a shirt and tie, a dark brown coat and skirt, and brogue shoes, and walked with the insouciant swinging grace of perfect health.

A particularly fun part of reading The Moving Toyshop is the number of times I had to reach for my dictionary. Crispin deploys a broad vocabulary, and it was a nice change of pace to stop and look up some of the relatively unusual words I encountered: homiletic, steatopygic, budgerigars, atrabilious, fortalice, myrmidons, prepossession, perorated, rodomontade, groined, cheiromancer.

Along the way, our merry band of adventurers manage to track down and collar a group of scoundrels and deliver them to the local authorities, then retire to the local pub for their deserved, but mannered, celebratory feast.

Although The Moving Toyshop was published in 1946, Crispin is typically considered to be part of the great Golden Age of British detective writing, alongside other giants of the time such as Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy Sayers, GK Chesterton, Anthony Berkeley, Nicholas Blake, and more.

And, clocking in at a brisk 200 pages of rapid, easy reading, Crispin is a lovely way to explore that great period of writing, and I look forward to spending more time with his work in the future.

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