Wednesday 15 January 2014

The Moving Toyshop

The chap opposite me on the train this morning (40ish, well dressed) was reading, with every evidence of concentration if not overt enjoyment, The Moving Toyshop, a Gervase Fen mystery, by Edmund Crispin. He was reading it in a natty reprint (Vintage), but I remember it as one of the many well-thumbed green-and-white Penguins on my father's detective-heavy bookshelves. In my boyhood years I must have read them all (certainly all the Crispins) - probably enough detective-reading for a lifetime; I certainly never feel the urge now. On  the other hand, I'm tempted to make an exception for The Moving Toyshop...
 Edmund Crispin - real name (Robert) Bruce Montgomery - was an interesting figure. An Oxford friend of Philip Larkin's - to whom The Moving Toyshop is dedicated - he had two parallel careers, as writer of witty detective fiction and composer of film music, until drink problems effectively put paid to both. He wrote the scores for a clutch of British comedy films, including six of the Carry On series - indeed, we owe to Montgomery the original Carry On theme.
 The detective fiction is somewhat higher of brow, its hero being the erudite and eccentric don Gervase Fen, Professor of English at Oxford. The stories, which are fantastical confections that never take themselves seriously, include amid the sometimes farcical action much literary and cultural chat and allusions (I remember a scene where Fen and his sidekick pass the time by swapping the titles of unreadable books - one of them, shamefully, comes up with Tristram Shandy). In The Moving Toyshop, Crispin goes so far as to 'break the fourth wall' (as we say these days): during a chase scene, Cadogan (sidekick) suggests 'Let's go left - after all, Gollancz is publishing this book.' The climactic scene - which I do remember - takes place on a fairground roundabout, an exciting passage that must surely have inspired the almost identically staged scene in Hitchcock's Strangers On A Train.
  I wonder what it would be like to reread The Moving Toyshop now - would it be a big disappointment? I guess there's only one way to find out...

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