J. C. Masterman by Martin Edwards
Masterman wrote just two detective
novels, published more than 20 years apart. His role in the development of modern crime
fiction was therefore inevitably minor; yet it was far from negligible.
Both Masterman's books are set in an imaginary Oxford college, St. Thomas's. He was ideally qualified to use such a background. He studied history at Worcester College, taking a First Class Honours Degree before becoming a Student (i.e. Fellow) of Christ Church. A distinguished academic, he eventually became Provost of Worcester College, holding the prestigious position of University Vice-Chancellor in 1957-58 and receiving a knighthood in l959.
His first novel, An Oxford Tragedy, appeared in 1933 and was unusual, at that time, in providing an account of how murder disturbs the tranquil existence of Oxford dons. This variation on the old theme of dark deeds committed in supposedly civilised surroundings had many imitators. A tradition of Oxford-based crime fiction grew up, its most notable products including Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers and much of the best work or Michael Innes and Edmund Crispin.
An Oxford Tragedy has been widely praised. In A Catalogue Of Crime, for instance, Barzun and Taylor describe it as "A first rate story, which...projects the genuine atmosphere, establishes plausible characters, and furnishes detection, logic and discussion of 'method' in admirably simple and attractive English...a masterpiece".
It is quite true that the setting is effectively described - by Francis Wheatley Winn, who is the Senior Tutor at St. Thomas's and who freely admits that; "my life is bound up in the life of the college". Masterman must have known many such men.
Winn acts as Watson to an engaging amateur sleuth, Ernest Brendel. Viennese lawyer "of European reputation", he is visiting to deliver three lectures to the Law Faculty. His hobby is crime and its detection and he possesses the supremely useful quality of being "a man to whom secrets will be confided". When an unpopular tutor is found shot in the Dean's rooms, Brendel takes an interest. He succeeds in identifying the (rather pathetic) culprit, who dies by his own hand.
Unfortunately, a modern reader coming to the book for the first time will spot that, like many tyro novelists, Masterman experienced difficulty in structuring his plot effectively. It is not hard to guess the solution to the puzzle. More seriously, the secret is revealed too early in a comparatively short work with the result that there is a sense of anti-climax about the last 20 pages or so.
One does not have to search for reason why, despite the acclaim that greeted his first novel, Masterman took so long to produce its successor. He was a man of many talents. In the l920s, he represented England at lawn tennis and hockey, whilst in l931 he toured Canada with the M.C.C. During the Second World War, he worked for the intelligence service, chairing the Twenty Committee which supervised the day-to-day operation of double agents. The Committee, incidentally, took its name from the Roman numeral XX, i.e. "double cross".
Masterman later wrote a successful account of Oxford life, called To Teach The Senators Wisdom, and his second novel was at last published in l956. Again, Brendel is the central figure. The distinctive feature of The Case Of The Four Friends is that it is, as the title page says, "a diversion in pre-detection".
One night, after a game of bridge, Brendel is persuaded by a number of companions to tell the tale of how he "pre-constructed" a crime, rather than reconstructing it in the detective's normal fashion. As he says, "To work out the crime before it is committed, to foresee how it will be arranged, and then to prevent it! That's a triumph indeed, and is worth more than all the convictions in the world".
His story is of four men, each a potential victim, each a potential murderer. Events unfold quite slowly and the narrative is interrupted from time to time by discussion between Brendel and his listeners. Yet Masterman retains a firm grip on the reader's interest throughout and the originality of his approach is commendable. There is the added bonus of an introduction, which comes at the end of the book and in which the author gives a brief glimpse of his ability to argue the case that "reality has little to do with detective fiction".
Regrettably, despite his evident enthusiasm for the genre, Masterman produced no more crime stories. His output was small and be is perhaps best remembered today for his non-literary activities: But An Oxford Tragedy is not likely to be wholly forgotten and The Case Of The Four Friends certainly does not deserve to be.
Article originally appeared in CADS and is reproduced with kind permission of the author and Geoff Bradley