A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Thomas Baird


EDMUND CRISPIN – The Moving Toyshop. Gervase Fen #3. Gollancz, UK, hardcover, 1946. Lippincott, US, hardcover. 1946. Penguin, US, paperback, 1977. Felony & Mayhem, US, trade paperback, 2011.

   The droll opening scene of The Moving Toyshop has Richard Cadogan in his garden in the heart of London, dickering with his publisher over advances and royalties for his latest book of poetry and absentmindedly waggling a pistol under the publisher’s nose. Cadogan is “craving for adventure, for excitement: anything to stave off middle age.”

   He soon finds it in Oxford. After lightheartedly prowling the late-night streets, he enters a dark toyshop, finds a body, and gets conked on the head. Before the first  chapter is over, the body and the lethal toyshop are gone.

   Cadogan consults his old friend Gervase Fen, and the investigation gets rolling (sometimes almost out of control when dashing about in Fen’s sportscar, a vociferous Lily Christine III).

   The poet gets swept along, interviewing witnesses, bullying blackguards, rescuing damsels, facing death, and eventually breathlessly winding up the mystery. Along the way, the spirited duo enlists an elderly don and various clumps of students, attends chapel, puzzles out the clues in a nonsense rhyme, argues literature on the phone with the chief constable, interprets an eccentric will, and generally chases around Oxford in a boisterous fashion.

   Gervase Fen is very serious and determined when being a detective, but volatile and absentminded. When in a tight spot, he plays literary games, like Unreadable Books and Awful Lines from Shakespeare, and makes up titles for the thrillers that Crispin writes. He claims that “I’m the only literary critic turned detective in the whole of fiction.”

   The Oxford background is well realized, and the humor sustains the story. The basic plot was obviously influenced by John Dickson Carr. The climactic scene, revolving around the chase to catch the criminal, is so powerful, so moving, that Alfred Hitchcock borrowed it to use as the windup in his film
Strangers on a Train (1951).

   Reprinted with permission from 1001 Midnights, edited by Bill Pronzini & Marcia Muller and published by The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, 2007.   Copyright © 1986, 2007 by the Pronzini-Muller Family Trust.