Breaching the fourth wall

High Street, Oxford in the mid-20th century

Edmund Crispin: The Moving Toyshop
Heron Books Library of Crime 1981 (1946)

Imagine a locked-room mystery in which everybody seems to have a cast-iron alibi and access to the murder victim appears impossible. Now imagine a scenario with the fourth wall torn away, or at least the veil between the actors on the stage and the theatre audience being occasionally parted. That is the premise of this novel, an intermittently metafictional take on the murder of a middle-aged woman. But where is the body, and where’s the evidence of any violence having taken place?

The Moving Toyshop has garnered much praise from those who ought to know about classic whodunits but it’s still disconcerting for a relative newcomer like myself to find characters imagining titles for the book they’re appearing in and referring to the book’s author by name. Bearing in mind the title (taken from Pope’s parody The Rape of the Lock) we have always to be aware that the author is trifling with us.

Humour suffuses this Oxford cosy: from two of the protagonists playing literary games (“Unreadable Books” and “Detestable Characters in Fiction”) to clues taken from Edward Lear’s limericks; and from the prickly professor with his hair “sticking up like porcupine quills” to altos in a choir rehearsing Brahms’ Song of Destiny “hooting morosely like ships in a Channel fog — which is the way of altos the world over”. Even the chapter titles (“episodes” is how they’re presented) are maliciously witty in introducing us to the dramatis personae: Prowling Poet, Dubious Don, Candid Solicitor, Indignant Janeite, Nice Young Lady, Malevolent Medium, Neurotic Physician, and so on.

(Yes, I’ve just used the Oxford comma.)

Despite an unhelpful ‘simplified’ sketch map (in which sites are not identified, perhaps deliberately) it’s possible to get a good sense of a relatively traffic-free pre-war Oxford populated by representatives of town and gown; in a way, the city of dreaming spires (nightmarish, more like) is yet another actor in the farce. Impecunious poet Richard Cadogan travels to Oxford to get some excitement into his life, only to get more of this than he bargained for when he stumbles upon a dead body above a toyshop. Unfortunately for him, when he returns with the police to the crime scene both body and shop are no longer there, the toyshop having morphed overnight into a common or garden grocery. He confides in his eccentric friend Professor Gervase Fen and, like a latter-day Watson and Holmes partnership, they set out to solve to mystery. As they investigate they risk both life and reason — and the more we are willing to suspend disbelief the more Crispin attempts to rip away that fourth wall.

A word about the author. Bruce Montgomery hid behind his Shakespeare-inspired pen name for a number of Gervase Fen novels, of which I’ve only read the first, The Case of the Gilded Fly (1944). He was also a composer of choral and orchestral music as well as of film scores (notably for the ribald Carry On series), hence the introduction of the Brahms rehearsal into the plot. In this particular instalment he’s clearly enjoying himself playing with convoluted plotlines, tricky characters, moments of high farce and, particularly, literary allusions:

“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?”

The Moving Toyshop is as much a humour-dunit as a whodunit — because of all the diversions we almost don’t care who committed the crime in the first place — and as such is as amusing a read as you might hope for. As an envoi let me quote you his amuse-gueule advice to the reader on the reverse of the title page:

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.

In the 2018 Ultimate Reading Challenge this represents a funny book
(Don’t confuse Edmund Crispin’s The Moving Toyshop with either Angela Carter’s The Magic Toyshop or with Diana Wynne Jones’ Howl’s Moving Castle)

20 thoughts on “Breaching the fourth wall

    1. Thanks, Paula, it is bonkers, straying just the right side of plausibility even though it’s occasionally touch and go! But such quirky characters with, thank goodness, little of the angst-laden doom-mongering modern crime novel protagonists seem prey to. And did I mention the literary allusions?!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. With the Gervase Fen books I’ve a feeling one either, as with DVD box sets, over-indulges by reading the whole sequence in one go or spaces them out to savour them individually. I think I’ll wait a little time before returning to the Gilded Fly case, but the two titles you mention I may grab if I see them going for a song!

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      1. I picked mine up on a sale online (second-hand)- they’d also listed Moving Toyshop which I ordered but then they wrote back saying they’d run out of those so I ended up with these two. After reading your review, I’m planning to bump these up on the reading list 🙂

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        1. I hope you enjoy them! I’ve seen reviews which abhor their facetiousness and what’s seen as their literary snobbishness, but that’s the nature of these books — being facetious and snobby (we’re talking early post-war Oxbridge here, of course, when Crispin mostly wrote them) — and it’s not going to appeal to everyone. But I’d like to emphasise I’m not snobby!

          By the way, I always like the fact that ‘facetious’ is one of the few words in English that includes all the vowels in alphabetical order. ‘Abstemious’ is another. 🙂

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          1. From the descriptions it sounds as though I will 🙂

            I did not notice that (or know that) about facetious–love picking up these little tidbits of info 🙂 Thanks for sharing that!

            Liked by 1 person

  1. I love the term ‘humour-dunit’! I read this book a few years ago and really enjoyed it, especially the literary allusions and limericks. It’s still the only Edmund Crispin novel I’ve read but I do want to read more.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Helen! ‘Humour-dunit’ — don’t know if it’s a meme I plucked out of the air as a bit of morphic resonance, or actually an original thought (!), but it seemed apt in this case.

      Looking around online I see that different reviewers have their favourites but the Gilded Fly case, being the first Gervase Fen mystery — can the GF initials be a coincidence? — seems to be highly rated, and as it’s due a reread and a review I may go back to it sometime.


    1. Back in the day I wasn’t into much into crime fiction — but back in the day I would have missed all the nuances. It’s an ill wind! Green Penguins: I think my mother used to read the odd one of these but she must have passed each one on, I don’t remember seeing them on her bookshelves.

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