Eminent poet Richard Cadogan is feeling bored and middle-aged and so he decides that he needs a holiday. His publisher, Mr Spode, suggests that Cadogan spends a few days with him but Cadogan spurns the offer:
'”Can you give me adventure, excitement,
“These picaresque fancies,” said Mr Spode. “Of course, there's my wife...” He would not have been wholly unwilling to sacrifice his wife to the regeneration of an eminent poet, or, for the matter of that, to anyone for any reason. Elsie could be very trying at times.'
Despite the proffered attractions of Mrs Spode, Cadogan decides to holiday in Oxford. On the journey from London, after several pints of beer, he mistakes his stop and eventually arrives in Oxford in the early hours of the morning. Walking through the deserted town he notices that a shop door is unlocked. Wishing to check whether there are burglars on the premises before he makes a fool of himself by raising the alarm, Cadogan enters the shop. 'The beam of his torch showed the small, conventional interior of a toyshop, with a counter, cash-register, and toys ranged about it – Meccano sets, engines, dolls and dolls' houses, painted bricks, and lead soldiers.'
Exploring further, into the living rooms, Cadogan discovers, lying on the floor, 'the body of an elderly woman, and there was no doubt that she was very dead indeed.' He has time to ascertain that she has been strangled by a thin wire and then he is knocked unconscious. When Cadogan regains consciousness he is locked in a small backroom. He climbs out of the window and makes his escape and goes to alert the police. However, when he returns in a police car to the scene of the crime:
'The police car drew into the kerb. Half rising in his seat, Cadogan stopped and stared. In front of him, its window loaded with tins, flour, bowls of rice and lentils, bacon, and other groceries in noble array, was a shop bearing the legend:
FAMILY GROCER AND PROVISION MERCHANT
He gazed wildly to right and left. A chemist's and a draper's. Further on to the right, a butcher, a baker, a stationery shop; and to the left, a corn merchant, a hat shop, and another chemist...
The toyshop had gone.'
The police are kind but dismissive, assuming that, at best, Cadogan is suffering from concussion and, at worst, is quite mad. Cadogan turns to his old university friend, Gervase Fen, shelving the long-rankling fact that, '”It was you who wrote about the first poems I ever published, 'This is a book everyone can afford to be without.'”'
Fen is not a credulous man but he is far more willing than most people to think outside the box and discuss the substitution as something that has occurred. For Cadogan it is a great relief to have a matter-of-fact companion to help him investigate. 'Something like relief was coming back into Cadogan's mind. For a while he almost wondered if he were, in fact, suffering from delusions. Belying all outward appearance, there was something extremely reliable about Fen.'
Cadogan and Fen are now faced with the task of sorting out what is going on. As Fen says, if one works on the assumption, “that toyshops in the Iffley Road do not just take wing into the ether , leaving no gap behind: what could inspire anyone to substitute a grocery shop for a toyshop at dead of night?”'
The investigation to answer this question, not to mention identifying the murdered woman and discovering her murderer, leads Fen and Cadogan on a series of bizarre and sometimes violent adventures, meeting some extraordinarily eccentric villains and and a damsel in distress in the shape of an attractive, very frightened girl called Sally. Fen calls on reinforcements from his colleagues and students, notably the ancient Doctor Wilkes and Hoskins, an undergraduate with a remarkable way with women. At one point Fen postpones his lecture on Hamlet in order to enlist the aid of his students to escape from the police officers who are pursuing Fen, as he explains: '”Not for any crime I have committed, but simply because, in their innocence, they do not know that I am tracking down the perpetrator of a particularly cold-blooded and brutal murder.” Here there was some tentative applause from the back. Fen bowed. “Thank you.”
The Moving Toyshop is a book of many chases, culminating in a pursuit with Fen and the murderer trapped upon an out-of-control steam-powered carousel. One of the most amusing pursuits in English literature must be when Fen, Cadogan, Hoskins, Sally and Dr Wilkes (the latter on a stolen bicycle) attempt to head off a villain, aided by a large selection of students, and pursued by assorted villains, and the outraged proctors in a small car. P.D. James paid tribute to Crispin's frivolity and his comic sense. Certainly, his comic timing is impeccable, as when, towards the end of the hunt, the villain, 'turned left into South Parks Road, tree-lined and pleasant, with the rout still indefatigably pursuing. Two classical dons, engaged in discussing Virgil, were submerged in it and left looking surprised but unbowed. “My dear fellow,” said one of them, “can this be the University steeplechase?” But, as no enlightenment was forthcoming, he abandoned the topic. “Now, as I was saying about the Ecologues-”'
The plot is fantastic and some of the coincidences are too far-fetched but none of this matters. Crispin acknowledged the absurdity in the front page where most writers content themselves with assuring the reader their characters are fictional. 'None but the most blindly credulous will imagine the characters and events in this story to be anything but fictitious. It is true that the ancient and noble city of Oxford is, of all the towns of England, the likeliest progenitor of unlikely events and persons. But there are limits. E.C.'
The Moving Toyshop is regarded as Crispin's greatest novel. Gareth Roberts said that his Doctor Who novel, The Well-Mannered War was modelled upon Crispin's style and that The Moving Toyshop was 'more like Doctor Who than Doctor Who.'
The Moving Toyshop was dedicated to the poet Philip Larkin, Crispin's friend and contemporary at Oxford. Larkin is also mentioned in the book; a mischievous aside, referring to him as a student of Fen's. In return, Larkin said of Crispin, 'Beneath a formidable exterior he had unsuspected depths of frivolity.'
The Moving Toyshop is a delightful book, witty, intriguing and full of action. It is Crispin at his best.
Published by Vintage Books