The Crispin Chronicles
The Moving Toyshop
This is the first of Fen's major cases, and it stuck so fast in public memory that it was sufficient to prompt a detective, almost 40 years later, to consult him in the case of The Glimpses of the Moon.
The story owes its beginnings to the dissatisfaction of the poet Richard Cadogan, and his impulsive visit to Oxford. Here, on his way to visit Gervase Fen, he observes strange happenings in a Toy Shop, only to find the Toy Shop to later hoist its skirts and move. Thus begins a long and convoluted affair in which the greater public is introduced to Professor Fen, and some of his more striking colleagues and associates: Wilkes; Sir Richard Freeman (the literary Chief Constable); the amorous Mr Hoskins. There are also such strange characters as the publisher Spode (suspected of being The Missing Link) and the Old Man of the West.
It is a magnificent romp of a case, one that only Fen could have contrived to resolve. His methods were scarcely of the cerebral kind associated with Holmes or Poirot, involving as they did the loosing of a rabid band of students, but they were devastatingly effective in unmasking the killer of Miss Tardy, and later Mr Rosseter. His methods also involved studied and gloriously childish rudeness, as well as ruthlessness (see his treatment of the unfortunate Dr Haverling.
This case took place in Autumn 1938, by which time Professor Fen had already begun to acquire a reputation as a criminologist, as stated by one of the case's protagonists, Sally Carstairs, and as proven by his dealings with Sir Richard Freeman. Freeman was Chief Constable, but his real interest was in literature. Fen's on the other hand, was in crime.
In appearance, Fen was lanky , aged about forty, with a cheerful, lean, ruddy and clean-shaven face, topped with dark hair, plastered down ineffectually with water but still standing in spikes at the crown. He possessed great energy, walking everywhere with huge strides, while wearing a heavy coat and an extraordinary hat. What can this hat have been? Perhaps something in the nature of one of those floppy, broad things that artists of the last part of the 19th Century wore.
His committment to his profession was questionable, at least at this point of his career. Why else would a relatively newly appointed Professor be involved in crime resolution? More to the point, why would a professor of English be so uninterested in discussing the finer points of literature with such an able mind as that of Sir Richard Freeman? And what sort of dedicated pedagogue would address his entire student body only to tell them he was too busy to teach them? Incidentally, Fen tells Cadogan he became a Professor because of his tremendous scholarly abilities and acute and powerful mind. This is more than offset by Cadogan quoting back to him his earlier assertion that it was merely a matter of pulling a few moth-eaten strings.
In truth, Fen belonged to a different age. He had that need to make things happen, to surround himself with excitement. This he recognised and this he addressed in varying, and often outrageous, ways over the years. His rudeness, his apparent silliness, are both surely indicative of a temperament that craved a 'buzz'. His use of the swarm of students to capture the killer was but one example. Even to his friends, Fen could appear superficially callous, yet it is interesting that Richard Cadogan appeared to bear him no animus for a review of his book that ended, This is a book everyone can afford to be without.
Apart from his criminology, Fen's main interest at this time appeared to be his recently acquired car, Lily Christine III. He had bought her from an impoverished, sent-down undergraduate who had already christened her and fastened a steatopygic chromium nude to her radiator cap. That said, he had not troubled much to learn how to control her, and his understanding of her works was virtually non-existent. Nevertheless, he had already discovered how to address her tendency to breakdown and to backfire alarming, by judiciously applying a hammer to her innards.