An Oxford Tragedy

A classic detective story by a writer of multiple talents

An Oxford Tragedy is available as a Kindle ebook
An Oxford Tragedy is available
as a Kindle ebook
John Cecil Masterman was probably the first writer to set a murder mystery in a fictional Oxford College with his novel,  An Oxford Tragedy, published in 1933. This was two years before Gaudy Night by Dorothy L Sayers appeared and three years before the publication of Death at the President’s Lodgings by Michael Innes, although there have been plenty of crime writers who have set their stories in Oxford since.

Masterman, who was born on 12 January 1891 - 131 years ago today - was a distinguished historian and rose to become Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University, eventually receiving a knighthood for his services to education in 1959.

His amateur sleuth in An Oxford Tragedy was Ernst Brendel, a Viennese lawyer who has come to St Thomas’s College Oxford to deliver a series of law lectures. Masterman did not publish a follow-up to the novel until 1957 when The Case of the Four Friends appeared, again featuring Ernst Brendel.

Masterman was kept busy during World War Two in the Intelligence Corps. He was deputy head of MI5, where he was given the job of chairing the Twenty Committee, running the Double-Cross system for controlling double agents in Britain. His book about his experiences, The Double Cross System in the War of 1939 to 1945, was published privately in 1945, but was only officially allowed publication by the British Government in 1972, five years before his death in 1977.

The events in An Oxford Tragedy are narrated by the college’s Senior Tutor, Francis Wheatley Winn, who during the story serves as a Watson to the novel’s Sherlock Holmes, Ernst Brendel.

A portrait of J C Masterman, whose writing was one of many talents
A portrait of J C Masterman, whose
writing was one of many talents
All is fellowship and conviviality in the Common Room at the college where the dons are enjoying after dinner port and cigars and the company of the visiting lecturer, Brendel. But the calm is soon shattered when one of the dons rushes in to say that a brilliant but unpopular tutor has been found shot and killed in the Dean’s lodgings.

Inspector Cotter of Scotland Yard is called in, but can make little headway in establishing the identity of the murderer. The Senior Tutor begs Brendel to try to solve the crime for the sake of the college and the charming Viennese lawyer soon uncovers the thwarted ambition, unconsummated passion, hatred and jealousy that lie beneath the surface of the seemingly comfortable, pleasant lives of the dons at the college.

The novel was a pleasure to read because it cleverly reveals the psychology of murder, the motives and feelings that can push a civilized human being to commit the ultimate crime, while faithfully recreating the setting, customs and atmospheres of an Oxford College in the early 1930s.

Masterman wrote several other books and a play, Marshall Ney, a Play in Five Acts. He was fluent in German, having spent his four years interred during World War One in the Ruhleben internment camp in Germany perfecting the language.

As if the man did not have enough talents, he was also an excellent tennis, cricket and hockey player and won a Blue for athletics.  He reached the fourth round at Wimbledon in the men’s singles in 1923 and the quarter finals of the men’s doubles in 1923 and 1924. In 1931 he toured Canada with the Marylebone Cricket Club and for 31 years was on the committee of the Free Foresters, the nomadic amateur gentlemen's club that prospered in the first half of the 20th century.

Some second-hand copies and a Kindle edition of An Oxford Tragedy are available from Amazon.


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