The Moving Toyshop: A Detective Story by Edmund Crispin. Walker and Company, 1946. 0802754341.
I was complaining to a co-worker about having to give up on two classic mysteries in a row because they were too dark. (I have to be in the right mood for a really gritty book.) He recommended a series featuring a crime-solving Oxford don and loaned me this book. (Thanks, Tom!) It turned out to be just right.
English professor Gervase Fen is a delightful sleuth: he has a keen, logical mind, a tremendously dry sense of humor, and drives his red sports car (named Lily Christine III) around Oxford like a maniac. His poet friend Richard Cadogan comes to Oxford on vacation. On his way into town late at night, he finds the door of a toyshop unlocked. He enters to let the shopkeeper know, makes his way to the apartment upstairs, and finds the body of an elderly woman who was strangled to death. The unseen killer knocks him out with a blow to the head. After Cadogan comes to, he escapes through a back window. When he brings the police to investigate, both the body and the toyshop are gone. The police figure he imagined it all because of his (very real) head injury. Fen thinks otherwise. Together they piece together the clues to a murder without a body.
The crime itself is a complex and baffling puzzle. Even the suspects comment that it is an impossible murder, a locked-room mystery in an unlocked room. Several times I was convinced that I knew who had done it, only to have the evidence clear that person and a new suspect emerge. The solution brought everything together in a satisfying way. I am definitely going to follow the rest of Gervase Fen’s cases!
Both Fen and Cadogan are wonderfully eccentric, and they manage to gather quite a few odd characters to help them. My favorites were Wilkes, a hard-of-hearing elderly professor who always ends up near the liquor and beautiful women; an unnamed truck driver with a great appreciation for literature; and Mr. Barnaby, a student who interrupts his intellectual madeira-and-cake soiree to gather a mob of drunk undergrads and chase down a suspect. I found the book richly written and quite fun, with some lovely turns of phrase and a vocabulary that sent me to the dictionary quite a few times. There are many entertaining literary references including a plot point involving the poetry of Edward Lear, a pair of heavies nicknamed Scylla and Charybdis, and a running joke involving Fen half-starting a discussion about Measure for Measure every time he’s on the phone with the police.