Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Penguin no. 220: An Oxford Tragedy
by J.C. Masterman

...in the nature of things, you must see it all through my eyes - or rather, to be more exact - through my spectacles. And there at once, before we are fairly started is a difficulty. For you must see it through those spectacles or not at all, and they, no doubt, are a little blurred with prejudices and misty with my old-fashioned sentimentality. I have taught history all my life, and, though I have written no book, I have sought patiently enough for the truth. I should like to think now that I could set down all this story objectively - without a hint of my own personality or my own feelings - but I know that to be impossible, and I shall not even attempt to do it. No, if I am to tell the whole truth it can only be the truth as I saw it, and you, for your part, must resign yourself to seeing it through spectacles which you can neither polish nor remove.

An Oxford Tragedy was published in 1933, and it is credited as being the book which initiated the tradition of the murder mystery with an Oxford setting. It was a world J.C. Masterman knew well: he was an academic and sportsman, serving as Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University in 1957/58. He wrote only one other detective novel, The Case of the Four Friends, published in 1957.

A distinguished but disliked academic is murdered late one evening in the Dean's rooms in the fictional Oxford college of St Thomas's. The murder weapon is a loaded revolver, left by the Dean on a table, in preparation for an interview the following morning with the two students from whom it had been confiscated. Its existence and location were topics discussed that evening by the Fellows of St Thomas during their dinner. And so although it is possible that the murder may have been committed by an outsider straying into the college after hours, knowledge of the gun seems to define the most likely suspects: the academics, the serving staff, and the two wayward students.

Two of the diners are known to be innocent of the crime from the start: Ernst Brendel, a visiting Viennese lawyer with a background in criminology, and Francis Wheatley Winn, Vice-President of the college and Senior Tutor in modern history. It is Winn who narrates the story, outlining the events of the evening leading up to the discovery of the body, and then continuing the narrative until the identity of the murderer is uncovered. His is the only view we are allowed. Most of the suspects are his colleagues, and another is the son of a family friend, and so his view of them is a personal one, coloured by years of friendship or petty grievances.

The main focus of the narration is on the moment-by-moment impact of the unfolding events on Winn himself. The murder disturbs the tranquil flow of his life and he is uncertain of how to proceed; he relates the unpleasantness of all that must be faced, his feelings of inadequacy, indecision, and confusion, and his unwillingness to believe that a member of the college could be responsible for the crime. It is Brendel, the outsider, who brings a sense of stability and decisiveness. Winn comes to look to him for direction, and depends on him to solve the crime.

And the crime must be solved for the good of the college, so that life can return to normal. There is no particular sympathy for the victim; he almost has no status. The sense conveyed throughout is that the murder is a crime committed against the college, a kind of contamination from the outside world, disrupting the routine and ordered life, and bringing the distasteful prospect of unwanted publicity. And the University setting is assumed to bring an additional complication which impinges on the prospect of a solution: these are all honest men and no academic lies about his actions, although not everything is revealed. It is suggested that traditional policing methods rely upon detecting deceit.

In the end, and inevitably, it is the Viennese lawyer who reveals the answer. His knowledge of criminology and his experience with murderers permit him to look through the chaos and find the hidden pattern. It is fairly easy for a reader to guess, but only because the narration heads towards the answer. It cannot be determined logically as the murderer's motives remain unrevealed until after he is named; information not known to the narrator cannot be known by the reader. And it is a flaw in the story that the solution is revealed too early. More than 21 pages remain, but the impetus for reading them has gone.

Winn's indecision is contrasted with Brendel's certainty and insight, but perhaps it is a little overdone. As the story progressed Winn began to seem a little self-absorbed, and it was difficult not to become impatient with his continuing uncertainty. However, I think my real difficulty was with the seriousness. After reading Michael Innes, this book seemed a little staid and stolid; interesting but not really entertaining.


4 comments:

  1. You're doing a great job. Keep it up. Nothing beats those old Penguins. They educated generations and still look, and read, just fine.

    clancy sigal

    ReplyDelete
  2. Clancy,

    Thank you for such a lovely comment, and for visiting my blog in the first place. Who can understand where a passion comes from? I had it for these books before I even knew their history, when I knew nothing more than that an orange spine indicated a secondhand book worth buying and reading. And now I get to read so many books of which I would otherwise be completely unaware.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Better than an episode of Morse or Lewis any day!

    ReplyDelete

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