One of the lovely green Penguins I picked up at the weekend was this slim volume. I’ve been coming across it on eBay a lot recently at quite high prices and was pleased that my copy was only £1. This probably has something to do with the fragile state of the book – the cover is coming away from the contents! – but as it is only 150 odd pages it was easy enough to read carefully without it completely collapsing.

“An Oxford Tragedy” was published in 1933 and is one of only two crime books by J.C. Masterman. Our narrator is an ageing don, Francis Wheatley Winn, who is the Senior Tutor at St. Thomas’ (not a real Oxford college, obviously). Winn states straight from the start of the book that we will see the story through his eyes, and this is the vision of a slightly querulous, fussy old gent who has his comfortable bachelor college life disrupted by a violent death.

The murder in question is of Shirley, an unpopular tutor at the college, and this takes place during the visit of Brendel, a Viennese lawyer. The dons had been discussing murder after dinner shortly before the murder had been discovered, and as Brendel inspires confidence and has shown an aptitude for the subject, Winn asks him to find out the truth. The local inspector, Cotter, declares himself baffled and it is down to Brendel to track down the murderer.

This is a satisfying little mystery, and not entirely predictable. Brendel is an engaging detective, and Winn is effectively cast in the role of his Watson, befuddled and unable to disentangle the strands of the plot. It is left to Brendel to resolve matters largely off-screen while Winn worries away about who-dunnit. There are a lively set of characters, including the President’s two beautiful daughters, and the plot is very involving. There are also plans of the murder rooms so this is truly ‘Golden Age’!

But the book is about more than just the murder mystery. The ‘tragedy’ of the title seems to me to refer to a number of plot strands – the murder itself; the effect of the death on those closest to Shirley; the disappointments and set-backs in the life of the murderer which have caused him to take the action he did; and the disruption and change to Winn’s cosy little life, which will never be the same again.

I didn’t guess the murderer, which is always a pleasure in these books, and it was a cosy and enjoyable read. Looking up JCM on Wikipedia, I found this interesting quote:

“The novel itself was quite unusual for its time in providing an account of how murder affects the tranquil existence of Oxford dons. While it was a variation of the old theme of evil deeds done in a tranquil setting, it did establish the tradition of Oxford-based crime fiction, notably in the works of Michael Innes and Edmund Crispin.”

So that’s why I liked it so much!

Unfortunately, JCM only wrote one other crime novel (which also featured Brendel), but he seems to have had quite an exciting and varied career in academia and in spying! So Winn is presumably not a projection of the author but is still a very entertaining narrator!