The Moving Toyshop

The Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispin is utterly fabulous. It cropped up on some list of great sleuthing books a while ago and recently, I decided I needed a random treat. Having forgotten all the details that merited its placement on my Amazon wishlist, I was plunged into a wickedly funny and delicious murder mystery romp that takes place over twenty four hours in Oxford.

The Moving Toyshop is the third in a series of novels featuring Gervase Fen, an Oxford don who evidently solves crimes more often than he lectures or have tutorials with students -- but knowing nothing about Gervase Fen did not hinder me here. The novel opens in 1938 London, with the poet Richard Cadogan trying to coax an advance from his publisher, as he's utterly bored, needs adventure, and has selected Oxford as his holiday destination of choice. After a late-night arrival in Oxford, he stumbles into a toy shop -- and discovers a dead body. (Just accept this ridiculous premise and move on.) After being knocked unconscious and reviving in a broom cupboard only to escape, when Cadogan tries to take the police to the scene of the crime -- the location he distinctly remembers as a toy shop is a grocer's and there is no body to be found. Cadogan seeks out his old schoolmate Fen to help him track down the killer (and the body... and the toy shop...) and a rolicking day of sleuthing ensues.

Now, we all know how much I love Oxford, and if you do, too, then I think you're certain to love this. Cadogan and Fen seem to run over every inch of the place, but there are other things that conspired to make this a new favorite book of mine... for instance, the near bar-fight over Jane Austen. Seriously, I knew before then that I was quite charmed with the book, but at that point, I knew it was fantastic. While sitting in a bar or tied up and held hostage, Cadogan and Fen play games where they name off unreadable classics or insufferable characters that are intended as sympathetic. I'm totally going to start doing this with my friends whenever we find ourselves waiting somewhere. The novel is also in that particular witty style of British novels where every man is a raging homosexual or a rake... and even the rakes seem a bit light in the loafers. The dialogue is fantastic (I don't often underline in my books these days, but there were a few exchanges that I simply knew I'd want to note for later reference) and while the circumstances of the murder mystery are clearly ridiculous, it still makes for a very amusing story.

In short, if you enjoy ridiculous British sleuthing novels, then I'd be surprised if you hadn't read this already -- and if you haven't, you simply must.


An Expert in Murder

An Expert in Murder is a quite a good book, but in many ways, it's a victim to its own complications. There's a great deal going on with it, so let me give a brief summary, get into some of its stumbling blocks, and then close with why you really should read it anyway.

Josephine Tey, a Scottish writer and playwright, is traveling by train to London in the 1930s for the final week that her play, Richard of Bordeaux, will be playing in the West End. While on the train, she meets Elspeth Simmons, a young girl who recognizes Tey from a theater review and is quite a fan of her work. Elspeth is staying with her aunt and uncle in London, but she and her beau (who happens to work backstage on Richard of Bordeaux) will be seeing the play later that week. Tey is charmed by the girl, even inviting her to meet the lead actress of the play, who is meeting Tey at the station. Elspeth does so, and in her excitement, forgets her luggage on the train and runs back to retrieve it. Tey and her actress friend leave, but when Elspeth returns to the train car, she is brutally murdered in a way that the police can only believe is premeditated. She will not be the only casualty in this complicated story of the theater and England after the first World War -- for even if the war is over, its effects are still very present in the lives of those who lived through it.

This is Nicola Upson's first mystery novel and don't let yourself be convinced otherwise as you start to read it. I say this because I knew it was the first, and yet kept second-guessing myself. There are two reasons for this. Number one: Upson gave herself the daunting task of fictionalizing history. Her main character, Josephine Tey, is based on Elizabeth Macintosh, a Scottish mystery novelist. Josephine Tey was one of two pseudonyms that Macintosh used; the other is Gordon Daviot. Upson nods to both of these, as Upson's character of Tey writes under the name Daviot. This novel focuses on events surrounding the original West End staging of Macintosh/Tey/Daviot's play Richard of Bordeaux. Now, the plot of this novel is entirely fictional, but many of the characters are modeled on real people. This is a lot of overlay to deal with, but not too much... which brings me to the second reason that I felt like I was missing something throughout the beginning chapters. There was information being glazed over in a way that suggested that these were plotpoints of an earlier novel and all you needed to know was the outcome (aka a court case ruled in favor of Tey and as a result, some other author committed suicide). These incidents that have taken place prior to the events that are taking place in this novel are actually important here in this story, but you aren't necessarily given that impression. When Tey refers to her guilt that author's suicide, the reader feels confused because we are not given much to go on, and the natural impulse is to assume there was backstory here in the form of another novel that we clearly skipped/missed. I'm not sure what could have been done to make this better, but it wasn't until halfway through the book that I realized this backstory was still very much in play. It made things confusing and you never want your reader to spend a lot of time thinking, "did I miss something?"

That said, I quite enjoyed An Expert in Murder. It has its first novel flaws, but perhaps Upson is only really guilty of being ambitious. Upson paints an incredibly vivid picture of theater in the 1930s -- which I assume might be the subject of her nonfiction works, and certainly might be influenced by her own work in theater. It's not simply the on-stage action (because really, this isn't focused on much at all, except in discussions off-stage), but the theater-owner and the backstage crew are interesting, too. One accepts that strong personalities populate the theater, and so they do not seem at all out of place with their quips. Upson doesn't shy away from depicting homosexual relationships even at this time, though mostly she acknowledges that while they might be more common in the theater world, they were still bound by certain societal rules away from the footlights. Her characters off the stage have a bit more depth. Tey was interesting as a slightly older female lead character, but Archie Penrose, the detective, was really great. Their interaction is great and restrained -- very English, but wonderfully multi-faceted. Their link is a bit contrived, but Upson has a real gift for depicting poignant facts that have to do with this time period and if the complications are somewhat easy to foresee, you'll at least appreciate what still feels like genuine emotion without being overly dramatic. The complications of having survived friends and loved ones who were lost in a war, the attempts to move on with one's life, the inability to escape atrocities committed on and off the battlefield... Upson really shines here. I wasn't was thrilled with the ending of the murder mystery (don't worry, no spoilers here), but it came with what felt like a caricature of an evil villain. But even that wasn't quite enough for me to set aside the enjoyment that I'd gotten out of the rest of the novel's prose.

So I certainly believe that Upson will be a mystery writer to watch if she can keep pace with her own standards. I feel that, given the amazing depth of this work, they must be rather high. With all the plotpoints and characters, things felt slightly contrived, but despite these few issues, I still think the book was quite worthwhile and I look forward to the next Josephine Tey mystery, where hopefully Upson will have ironed out a few kinks. Oh, and I'll admit that this is another book where I was lured in by the cover -- I think it's just lovely.


Bunnicula: A Rabbit-Tale of Mystery

Bunnicula: A Rabbit-Tale of Mystery was written by James and Debra Howe about a vampire rabbit that comes to live with a family. When we read and love books as children, I suppose it's only natural for us to want to pass along that love to a new generation, so when I realized that my godson was coming upon the age and reading ability where Bunnicula might suit, I immediately bought it for him. It was only after the purchase that a friend asked, "So wait... he's a vampire rabbit? But he only drains vegetables? Where's the danger?"

It took a moment to admit that I couldn't exactly remember, and so I re-read Bunnicula to find that no matter what Chester the cat might suggest, there isn't really any danger (well, at least from Bunnicula), but the book remains delightful.

Bunnicula is written from the perspective of Harold, the Monroe family dog, but in his manuscript, he maintains that he has changed the names of the innocent for their protection. Harold has a peaceable companion in Chester, the family cat, named after G.K. Chesterton. (Which must have triggered some subconscious memory, given that I just read a book by G.K. Chesterton, but I'm not sure which book led to the other.) Chester reads quite a lot and when the family brings home a new pet after finding him at the movie theater (a showing of Dracula), Chester suspects that Bunnicula is more than he appears. He sleeps all day and the markings on his fur form a curious widow's peak that gives him the look of wearing a cape. And Chester could swear that he saw two pointy fangs on the bunny by the light of the moon. Chester becomes obsessed with watching Bunnicula and discovers white vegetables in the house, which he believes Bunnicula has drained.

Having now read this as an adult, I actually found Bunnicula to be relatively simple in terms of plotline, but rather packed with some more complicated ideas if one chooses to think about them. For instance, Chester is convinced that Bunnicula's eating habits somehow endanger them all -- a very "today vegetables, tomorrow the world" kind of approach. Harold, on the other hand, is rather torn between supporting his friend Chester and simply leaving Bunnicula be, as he sees no harm in it -- aside from a rather startled family when they believe themselves subjected to some kind of vegetable blight after finding the white veggies. This manages to provide a rather fantastic set-up for teaching children about trusting their own opinions, not simply going along with the crowd, respecting others despite things that make them unique/different, and so forth. Chester appears to be a much less enjoyable character now that I'm older and the simple fact of him being a kitty counts for less than it did when I was eight. I mean, one could argue that Chester is instigating hate crimes (thank goodness that for all his literacy, he doesn't know the difference between a steak and a stake). His antics with spreading garlic everywhere are amusing (particularly in the time-honored tradition of humans being completely oblivious to anything in the animal world when your characters are animals), and there's a nice little jab at the concept of therapy being able to help him at the end of the book, but I found Chester to be much less of a funny kitty this time around. Our trustworthy narrator, Harold, does not let his fondness for chocolate cupcakes (though really, one shouldn't given chocolate to dogs) distract him from helping a potential new friend.

So if you're looking for a good (not too scary) Halloween book for that 8-12 year-old, then your search should be at an end. Of course, if memory serves, some more threatening things (like a potential zombie/vampire vegetable army?) seem to loom in the series. And speaking of series, I think I might have stopped after book number four, but the entire series for young readers (aka not counting spin-off books and for even younger readers) includes Howliday Inn, The Celery Stalks at Midnight, Nighty Nightmare, Return to Howliday Inn, Bunnicula Meets Edgar Allan Crow, and Bunnicula Strikes again.

Whenever I re-read books like this, I inevitably research them online and come up with some interesting facts. Evidently, James and Deborah Howe wrote Bunnicula together, but Deborah Howe died of cancer at the age of 31, before Bunnicula's publication. It seems that Deborah Howe was already an established children's author, having published a number of works and won several awards in her short life, and it was this first foray into children's literature that inspired James Howe. He continued writing the Bunnicula series, in addition to other books, after remarrying, fathering a daughter, eventually divorcing, and coming out of the closet. While Bunnicula Strikes Again appears to be the last in that series, he continues to write today.


The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare

On the cover of The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare, there's a sentence from a review by Kingsley Amis where he calls this book "The most thrilling book I have ever read." Clearly, strong recommendations from well-known authors can be a powerful selling tool, but I'll admit, it was the rest of the cover that sold me on this book. You can't always judge by it, sure, but you can certainly be reeled in by an attractive one. Look at this! Can you feel the energy? It's a small little volume, too, but on paper that's more appealing than the usual mass-market paperback. The crisp white and the stark black and red... Hats off to the art department at Penguin. Something about this small volume called to me and after reading the back cover description, I knew this was going to be good.

The best way that I've found to describe this book is that it feels like you're reading a car chase. In a good way. No, the whole book is not a car chase (though there is a car chase at one point), but it's a fantastic thriller that had me riveted as it raced through twists and turns in the plot, which featured poets, anarchy, and the question of what makes reality.

G.K. Chesterton published this book in 1908 and it opens on the meeting of two poets in turn of the century London -- Lucian Gregory and Gabriel Syme. Gregory loses his temper when Syme suggests that Gregory is not a true anarchist. So to prove his commitment to anarchy, Gregory extracts a vow of silence from Syme and then takes him to a secret meeting of anarchists... only to find (after Syme requests a similar promise from Gregory) that Syme is part of a secret anti-anarchy group of Scotland Yard. The two are at an impasse, unable to expose the other, and so Gregory is completely at a loss when Syme gives a rousing speech at the meeting and the secret agent is elected to serve as the local representative (called "Thursday") on the worldwide Central Council of Anarchists. And this is only the beginning as Syme joins the Council and meets its president, Sunday, who comes to represent all that Syme is battling against in this world.

Wikipedia will tell you that Adam Gopnik ran a piece in The New Yorker which described this book as "one of the hidden hinges of twentieth-century writing, the place where, before our eyes, the nonsense-fantastical tradition of Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear pivots and becomes the nightmare-fantastical tradition of Kafka and Borges." Even 101 years later, I could feel that this was that missing literary link that finally made me understand how the jump to writing and appreciating Kafka's work was made possible. That tradition of literature was never my focus, and I feel that had I been asked to read this before Kafka in school, I could have found a more coherent place for it in the sequence of literary styles. I had always been dissatisfied with explanations of how Kafka brought forth such a surreal narrative, fully-formed in its own unique style, a man suddenly made insect. I knew there must have been some premonitory clue, and here I feel as though I've stumbled upon something that makes that a little clearer. Though it seems amusing to use the term "clarity" here, as the simultaneous trust in and distrust of reality is what makes it all terrifying/fascinating.

Oh, and it might be narcissistic, but I'm always going to have a small affinity for a book that treats redheads with respect. There's a fantastic line that you can bet I'll remember: "My red hair, like red flames, shall burn up the world." Awesome. And I'll leave you with an early paragraph where Syme is speaking with Gregory's sister that I particularly enjoyed:

He stared and talked at the girl's red hair and amused face for what seemed to be a few minutes; and then, feeling that the groups in such a place should mix, rose to his feet. To his astonishment, he discovered the whole garden empty. Everyone had gone long ago, and he went himself with a rather hurried apology. He left with a sense of champagne in his head, which he could not afterwards explain. In the wild events which were to follow, this girl had no part at all; he never saw her again until all his tale was over. And yet, in some indescribable way, she kept recurring like a motive in music through all his mad adventures afterwards, and the glory of her strange hair ran like a red thread through those dark and ill-drawn tapestries of the night. For what followed was so improbable that it might well have been a dream.


The Amnesiac

James Purdew cannot remember a few things. A few years, come to think of it. They seem to have just slipped his mind. And it's not as though he can simply consult his journals to refresh his memory, because the journals for those three years seem to be locked in a small safe that can only be cracked via explosives and he's misplaced the key.

In the first scene of Sam Taylor's The Amnesiac, James is rushing up the stairs to answer a telephone in the Amsterdam flat that he shares with his girlfriend, Ingrid -- and he breaks a bone, which leaves his leg in a cast. It is the day before his thirtieth birthday. After a few weeks of recuperation, their relationship unravels, though not explosively by any means. Ingird leaves to take a job where, if he went with her, he could see his life neatly mapped out for him and James is unwilling to continue along such a clear path. After the break-up, a chance encounter with Ingrid's brother conveys to him the message that Ingrid hopes James can work things out with Anna. The name means virtually nothing to James, but it does give him a flash image of recognition, even if he has no idea who Anna might be. He feels compelled to discover the secret of those missing years -- for really, with such a hole in his memory, he starts to question a good amount of the rest of his memories, too. So James returns to H (an specified university town) in the UK, where he went those missing years occurred. He begins to restore a house owned by an unknown Client, and James becomes convinced that he knew this place during those missing years. Alternately becoming obsessed with rebuilding the house and peeling back the layers of his own past, James becomes a kind of detective, digging up clues to discover what secrets are out there, even if they would best be forgotten.

Oddly (or perhaps fittingly), I cannot remember the recommendation or review that caused me to put The Amnesiac on my short-list of books to read. Book club books and other titles wormed their way into my hands before I could finally reach for it upon my shelf, and without glancing at the back cover to refresh myself of the plot (and I had forgotten most of that, beyond simply that it featured a man trying to discover something about himself that he had forgotten), I started to read.

And I could not put it down.

It's hard to describe this novel, as its appeal wasn't necessarily in the linear story. Indeed, when discussing it with others as I was still reading it, the only thing I would say is that I feared it might collapse, becoming too clever to sustain itself. And while it didn't collapse, I also didn't feel entirely satisfied with its resolution. What I did enjoy, though, was the tone of everything... when things started to spiral out of control, the language kept up as you moved along at breakneck speed, but then slowed with James's (and the reader's) attempt to understand. The details helped this, without beating you over the head with clues (though James himself keeps a box quaintly labeled "CLUES"). And these details, like common initials in a story within the story that James finds under the wallpaper or flashes of what must be memories, are what James and the reader cling to as we move along. The reader is allowed to feel satisfied with guessing when things are a bit fishy and while a handful of instances resulted in my guesses being spot on, there were an equal number of times where I felt the bottom drop as I struggled with a new twist. If you couldn't tell already, reality is a bit of a dodgy concept for James Purdew, but it's certainly interesting. I particularly enjoyed a conversation between James and Philip Larkin, where James calls Larkin out on being dead. The details scattered throughout, too, were great -- shining moments of how imperfect our recognition of details can be and what exactly we choose to recall about scenes.

So the novel might not be perfect, but it's certainly fascinating. I mean, if you were to summarize the simple plot of the novel, it involves a newly-thirty man struggling to understand his past and what it all means. That hardly sounds original, but I'm quite pleased with Taylor's twists on it.