Posted in Book Review, Books I have read, Five Star Reads, The Classic Club

The Moving Toyshop – Edmund Crispin

Classic
5*s

Written in 1946 this is actually the third in the author’s series featuring the Oxford Professor of English Language and Literature Gervase Fen, but the first one that I have read and this one is featured in Martin Edwards’ brilliant book The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books.

In this book we meet famous poet Richard Cadogan who is seeking inspiration and so taps up his publisher for some money. That gets him just enough for a short holiday to Oxford. Clearly not very good on the organisational front after some hitch-hiking he finds himself on the deserted high street late at night and enters a toy shop, as you do, and finds a body of an elderly woman, clearly murdered. Poor old Richard is knocked out and locked in a cupboard by an unknown assailant. So it isn’t until the morning that he can alert anyone, by which time when he leads the finest of Oxfordshire’s constabulary to the high street, the toyshop has vanished.

Ultimately this is a locked room puzzle that needs a mind of a particular type to unlock the mystery and of course the local police aren’t terribly interested there being no body, no toyshop and therefore one has to assume no crime. Richard Cadogan isn’t to be thwarted though, he knows what he saw and so he calls on his old friend Gervase Fen to help. Gervase hops into his temperamental and somewhat erratically driven car, Lily Christine to investigate.

The unravelling of the mystery involves a legacy, one of the most often used device of the time but no less compelling for that, a sprinkling of limericks and a suitably complicated execution of a crime – fictional criminals of this era seemingly wanting to make things as difficult for themselves as those who may wind up investigating it.
Of course our duo don’t hand their suspicions over to the police, after all a poet and a university professor are quite entitled to work things out for themselves, even roping others into helping out

“I don’t think this is going to work,” Mr. Beavis remarked with some apprehension.
“It will work,” Fen responded confidently, “because no one expects this sort of trick outside a book”

The wonder of this novel is not so much the mystery, although that was well-executed, but the brilliant double-act that are Fen and Cadogan. While they are racing around in cars or sitting in bars stalking out various characters, they play silly games to pass the time such as unintentionally loathsome characters in literature, horrible classics and the most unreadable books of all time. All great fun although I have to admit that the use of unfamiliar phrases and words meant I am fully aware I didn’t quite get every humorous message, but I got enough to keep me fully entertained. Being set in Oxford even the local policeman is interested in literature..

Gervase, has it ever occurred to you that Measure for Measure is about the problem of Power?”
Don’t bother me with trivialities now” said Fen, annoyed, and rang off.

And even the lorry driver that gave Richard a lift at the start of the book reads from the circulating library citing “lady’s somebody’s lover” as an example of a recent read.

Most of all this book is fun with a capital F. I’ll be honest I wasn’t sure quite what to expect but I fell in love with the characters, the bizarreness and the rattling pace which was enhanced by the humour.

The Moving Toyshop is number 39 on The Classics Club list and the third of my fifty choices that I’ve read and reviewed. A great introduction into my Classic Crime Fiction.

 

First Published UK: 1946
Publisher: Penguin 
No of Pages: 245
Genre: Classic Fiction
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Posted in Book Review, Books I have read, Five Star Reads

The House of Birds – Morgan McCarthy

Historical Fiction 5*s
Historical Fiction
5*s

I’m a fan of dual time-line stories but suspect that these are far trickier to pull off than the big hits in the genre suggest, I have read my fill of poor imitations where the connections between past and present are weak or worse still, contrived. Books where all too often, one of the stories shores up the other to such an extent that you feel it was only invented to appeal to those of us who enjoy this form of storytelling. The House of Birds is not one of these poor imitations, better still the story in the present is about a man, Oliver who has walked out of his highly paid job and is ‘considering his options!’

Oliver met Kate when he was a twelve-year-old boy and together, one sunny day, finding themselves outside Kate’s Great-Aunt’s house decided as a bit of a dare to investigate. They made their way through the overgrown garden and Oliver climbed up to peer through one of the upstairs windows. What he saw in the room made a memory that he never quite shook off, coming as these vivid memories often do, just before his life changed, and he moved away from Oxford. Years later Oliver and Kate meet again and start to build a life together. Kate’s family has been split into two sides for years over an ongoing dispute of inheritance of the house in Oxford but now it has been passed to Kate. With the house in a poor state of repair and Oliver at a loose end, he decides to use his time organising the repairs and renovations. Once there he finds a story, written by a woman called Sophie.

Sophie’s story is set in the 1920s where she is trying to gain access to the Bodleian Library at Oxford University, but not having anyone to write a letter to allow her entry she is turned away. So starts the beginning of my enormous sympathy for this young woman, one whose husband returned from the war a different man to the one who left. This is a woman who has a love of books, of language and of learning and yet she is tied to the house where her staff have not enough to keep them busy but go some way into bringing life into a house where husband and wife have little conversation and who sleep in separate rooms.

The link between past and present is far from clear, even to Oliver as Kate had never mentioned a Sophia, so the first mystery is how the document ended up in the house at all. But like me, he could not fail to be captivated by Sophia’s story and when the pages come to an end, he wants to know more and without Kate’s knowledge tries to find out more which means talking to the side of the family who believe the house belongs to them.

Already enthralled by the story I was especially thrilled later on when mentions of Crete, in particular, Knossos, and the renovation of the site by Arthur Evans in the early twentieth century because I visited the site on my holiday this year. We had a very knowledgeable guide Maria, and so I know that Morgan McCarthy has done her research well from the titbits that correlate perfectly to all that I learnt about the site. With many pieces of information that are lightly sprinkled throughout the book, from myths and legends to the difference between a labyrinth and a maze, battles and kings and queens, meant that this was a book that taught me some new things too without it ever feeling anything apart from the fabric of the book itself.

This book has some outstanding characters who run the gamut of emotions of humans around the world, and some of these are mirrored between past and present. Sophia has a sister, and there is sibling rivalry, there is love, there is duty and there is guilt and greed… I could go on. This isn’t a fast moving book but the language is beautiful and the writing evocative. I had one of those sad moments when I reached the very satisfying ending, where I genuinely missed the characters I’d come to know and love.

I was delighted to receive a copy of The House of Birds from the publishers Headline. This unbiased review is my thank you to them

First Published UK: 3 November 2016
Publisher: Headline
No of Pages: 448
Genre: Historical Fiction
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