First published in 1946, this belongs to what many consider the golden age of crime writing in the UK. The book certainly has a great deal to recommend it. Literate in an unfussy way, it has a great story and an intriguing plot, and some wonderful characters set against the lovingly realised backdrop of Oxford.
The central character of this and Crispin’s other books is Gervase Fen, a Professor of English Language and Literature at Oxford. By turns eccentric, exasperating, and madcap, he has a penchant for detecting and plunges into the adventure with gusto. An old acquaintance arrives in Oxford in the early hours of the morning and stumbles into a toyshop that is unlocked, where he finds a corpse. On reporting this to the police, he is taken back to the scene only to find that not only is there no corpse, but also there is no toyshop.
And so begins a convoluted tale replete with literary allusions, car chases, kidnap, and scenes of high comedy. This won’t suit everyone’s taste. Whilst it is undoubtedly worthy of inclusion amongst the great crime writers of that era, it errs to the anarchic fringe. That is, whilst it respects the literary form, it has a great deal of fun with it as well. The story, whilst not impossible is highly improbable. Some of the characters border on caricature. What is more, the author is not above playing games with the reader that break the fourth wall. At one point the main character passes the time ‘making up titles for Crispin’, at another he decides to go left at a fork in the road because the book is published by Gollancz. These games do not detract from the book and are very much in keeping with the overall tone. So, if you like your crime novels to have a relaxed and humorous air, this (and Crispin’s others) will be for you.