Tuesday, 23 November 2010

The Moving Toyshop and female biology

While reading I often come across useful facts about the psychology of women - that we are changeable, that we like shoes, that poison is our preferred method of murder and so on. These are all practical and worth knowing, but I rarely (outside of pornography) come across a startling physical revelation. This happened yesterday when I was reading Edmund Crispin's The Moving Toyshop. In the scene from which I quote, the poet Richard Cadogan has just discovered a corpse.

She was dressed in a tweed coat and skirt and a white blouse, which emphasized her plumpness, with rough wool stockings and brown shoes. There was no ring on her left hand, and the flatness of her breasts had already suggested that she was unmarried.

Huh.

This bit of biological hilarity aside, The Moving Toyshop is great fun. The only other Crispin I'd read was Holy Disorders, which was entertaining but not remarkable. This is entirely different.

Considering that Crispin's detective, Gervase Fen, is a professor of English, it makes sense that the book should be very literary. But while literature is important to the plot (the whole thing hinges on a knowledge of a particular poet but I shall say no more) and the title comes from Alexander Pope, I was surprised by how aware of it's own status as fiction the book was. Catherynne Valente has just posted about her love of books talking about books, and books that know they're books, and it's a love I share. And I think with genre fiction in particular there's an opportunity for texts to demonstrate awareness of the fact that they are part of a genre, and to be in conversation with said genre.

So you have a villain who kindly sits the detective and his companions down before explaining everything to them-only to be shot through the window of the opposite house (and could that be a reference to "The Adventure of the Empty House"?) just as he's about to reveal the name of the murderer. You have a whole array of suspects, a completely absurd plot, and ridiculous car chases around Oxford during which this sort of thing is said:
"Lets go left," Cadogan suggested. "After all, Gollancz is publishing this book."*
And you have the narrative commenting on Fen's love of the deus ex machina as a technique, and attributing to this the fact that a deus ex machina has just occurred within the text. This is the sort of thing you'd complain about in most mystery stories; here, as an affectionate comment on fiction, it's hilarious.

Conclusion: I need to read more Crispin. What next?




*My copy is published by Vintage, but a perusal of the copyright page proves Cadogan to be correct.

3 comments:

Subashini said...

Oh, I how much did I enjoy this? Loved how you drew attention to the text's seemingly effortless conversation with itself. I need to reread this again.

The reference to the flatness of her breasts is hilarious, but also so apt - for a single, very proper Man of the 40s. It's such an astute reflection of Cadogan's male mindset in relation to evaluating female physical presence - dead or otherwise.

May I recommend 'Love Lies Bleeding' next? It is, after all, set in a school, and there are dead schoolteachers. Something you might appreciate, I reckon. :)

Aadisht said...

The self-referential thing is very dicey. If it's pulled off, it's brilliant, but if it isn't done well it's cringeworthy. (e.g. The Great Fables Crossover and oh, all of Bollywood). Which is why I'm reluctant to pick up anything as self-referential as this, even with the rave review.

Aishwarya said...

Subashini - Clearly I need Love Lies Bleeding like breathing. Is the murder-in-a-school story an actual genre yet, do you think?

I do so enjoy clueless men talking about women in comic novels. My favourite moment ever of this is in Farrell's The Siege of Krishnapur when to earnest young men are confronted with a hysterical, naked woman and their main concern is her pubic hair, since they've only ever seen nude females in classical sculpture and art.

Aadisht - I've been lucky enough to miss most of the self-referential Bollywood films of the last few years (there has been quite a glut) but yes, this sort of thing certainly has its flaws. It can be too knowing, too twee, too regressive ("butbutbut we were referencing classic thingummies" is as useful a weasel-out point as "we were being ironic!"). I think this book is pretty awesome with it, though. I suspect you'd like it especially; it's very much your style of funny.