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   Edmund Crispin was the pen name of composer Bruce Montgomery. Under that name, he wrote a series of comedic mysteries featuring Oxford "don" (Professor of English Language and Literature) Gervase Fen.

   Any of the Gervase Fen novels will provide hours of entertaining reading but the best of the lot by far is The Moving Toyshop (1946). The weakest in my opinion is the first in the series, Obsequies at Oxford (1945), also known as The Case of the Gilded Fly. Fortunately, the first one I read was The Moving Toyshop (1946).

   As this fast-paced tale opens, poet Richard Cadogan has decided to take a well-deserved holiday in Oxford, and has coerced his publisher into giving him an advance of £50. Subsequently arriving in Oxford, he idly walks into a toyshop on the Iffley Road, discovers the dead body of an elderly woman, and is promptly knocked unconscious by a blow to the head. Awakening locked in a closet, he escapes through a convenient window and makes his way to the police. The police are understandably skeptical of his account when a visit to the scene of the crime reveals that both the body and the toyshop have disappeared -- the latter having been replaced with a grocery store. Perplexed, he calls upon the services of his old friend and former schoolmate, Gervase Fen, to help him sort out the puzzle.

   Fen knows that truth is stranger than fiction or at least, it is in fiction -- so he believes his friends strange tale. Soon the two of them are careening around Oxford in hot pursuit of clues. Just when they think they understand what happened, the disappearing-toyshop mystery takes a sharp turn and becomes a locked-room puzzle. The story is reliant on coincidence (though no more so than the work of many more serious mystery writers such as Chandler) but the plot is tightly constructed nonetheless and the solution is satisfactory.

   The comic elements of the book are excellent and dont detract overmuch from the mystery elements. It is full of slapstick, truly witty repartee, and some of the most memorable minor characters ever devised for a short mystery novel. The latter include a taxi driver with a taste for D.H. Lawrence, an undergraduate Don Juan who really understands the way to women's hearts, and suspects who must be identified by their resemblance to famous limericks. The story also introduces the reader to Fens unusual time-passing games, including Detestable Characters in Fiction ("they must be characters the author intended to be sympathetic"), Most Unreadable Books (e.g. Ullyses), and Awful Lines from Shakespeare ("you know, the squishy vile jelly bit in King Lear").

   Two other favorites of mine are Frequent Hearses (1950) and The Long Divorce (1951). Frequent Hearses spins a tale of murder in a film studio, providing plenty of opportunity for satire (drawing on Crispin/Montgomerys experience as a film-score composer). It contains some of the best detection in any of the Fen stories but lacks the usual impossible crime. The scene in which the killer pursues a young woman through a hedgerow labyrinth is particularly exciting and suspenseful.

   The Long Divorce was the penultimate Fen novel, followed after a hiatus of more than a quarter-century by Glimpses of the Moon in 1977. It is a poison-pen mystery set in a superbly depicted country village. In a tribute to Dickens Mystery of Edwin Drood, Fen spends much of the book masquerading as a Mr. Datchery. The effect of the poison pen letters on the small community is vividly depicted, as is an eccentric religious sect. The murder plot is excellent and Fens investigation is more systematic than usual and displays some truly dazzling logic in reaching the solution.

   The final novel, Glimpses of the Moon (1977) starts off well and contains some of Crispins most bizarre characters and some truly hilarious scenes. Unfortunately, the mystery plot soon seemed to bog down and failed to hold my interest. Beware of the Trains (1953) is an short story anthology containing sixteen Short anecdotal stories with twist endings that had originally appeared in British newspapers. All but two of the stories feature Fen. I found the stories in this volume to be very enjoyable.