An Oxford Tragedy by J.C. Masterman
Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)
This 1933 novel feels authentic because its author was an academic all his life. Like the historian author, the narrator Francis Wheatley Winn is the Senior Tutor in History at fictional St. Thomas’s. He probably speaks for the author when he avers “My life is bound up in the life of the college.” Familiar elements of the classic mystery are a large number of suspects, an amateur detective, and a lengthy anti-climactic discussion of the puzzle in the last 25 pages. In A Catalogue Of Crime (1989), critics Barzun and Taylor list it as one of the 90 best mysteries and say of it, “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.”
I’m not sure I’d go that far. But I heartily recommend it to readers that like classic mysteries set at Oxford-type universities. It’s rather more intellectual than Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers, with sometimes stiff vocabulary and ruminations on how a quiet community of scholars is rattled by a killing. It is, however, less flippant than Michael Innes’ The Weight of the Evidence in which while sunning himself in a courtyard Professor Pluckrose is crushed to death by a meteorite that the culprit has shoved out a window. At least, in this novel, one has a sense that murder has been done and that violence has dark consequences nobody can guess.