Written a decade or so after the Golden Age of crime fiction, Crispin's The Moving Toyshop is a comic novel that delivers a devious mystery without ever taking itself seriously. Its hero is the self-regarding academic Gervase Fen who, in this case, comes to the aid of his friend, the poet Richard Cadogan. [amtap book:isbn=009950622X]
Cadogan is caught up in a mystery when he arrives in Oxford for a holiday. Walking into town in the early hours of the morning, Cadogan's suspicions are raised by a toyshop. Finding the door unlocked, he makes his way inside and discovers a dead body. Before he can raise the alarm he is knocked unconscious. When he comes to, the toyshop has gone - replaced by a greengrocer's - and there is no sign of the corpse. Baffled, he turns to Fen for help.
What follows is reminiscent of an Ealing comedy as Fen and Cadogan chase around Oxford in search of the truth.
Crispin enjoys himself throughout, throwing in all kinds of literary gags and satirical lines. "If there's anything I hate, it's the sort of book in which characters don't go to the police when they've no earthly reason for not doing so," says Cadogan at one point after Fen has refused to go to the authorities.
In quiet moments the pair play a range of literary games, listing "unreadable books", for example, and "detestable characters" ("everyone in Dostoevsky", Fen offers). Later they get a lift from a lorry driver who has become depressed by urban life after reading too much D.H. Lawrence.
Fen's awareness that he is a character in a mystery novel - at one point he thinks up titles for Crispin's subsequent books - is reminiscent of John Dickson Carr's The Hollow Man. I doubt that it's a coincidence that Carr's hero, Gideon Fell, has the same initials as Fen.
The solution to the puzzle is convoluted and slightly confusing but still fairly satisfying. However, the solution isn't the point. This is an entertaining romp that makes for a thoroughly enjoyable speedy read.