Tuesday, February 14, 2012

An Oxford Tragedy

AN OXFORD TRAGEDY (1933) – J.C. Masterman

Time for another entry in my “Persons of Interest” Category in Bev’s Vintage Mystery Challenge.

Masterman was an Oxford don when he wrote this account of the death of an unpopular academic following a dinner at St. Thomas’s College.  The events are narrated by Francis Winn, Senior Tutor, who spends a great part of the book explaining how conventional, indecisive, fussy and ineffective he is.  You might think his maunderings significant to the plot of the book; they are not.  Winn is a bystander who watches Ernst Brendel, a visiting Viennese lawyer, deduce the identity of the murderer.  This is a very pedestrian effort by Masterman, who couldn’t seem to decide whether he was writing a plot driven story dependent upon maps and scale models of the college and when X left the room, or a tale hinging upon the psychological profile of the killer, or a narrative of thwarted love as the motive. You’ll only find out when an inordinately long note is read aloud at the end to explain everything.

So why read the book?  Masterman may have turned out a dull tale, but in actual life he must have had a bit more on the ball than is demonstrated by his plotting and characterization in this book.  Studying in Germany when WWI broke out, he was imprisoned for the duration of the war.  He returned to academia between the wars and became an international sportsman, playing cricket, tennis and field hockey.  During WWII, he was called into service as the chairman of the Twenty Committee, which ran all the double agents in Britain.  In 1972, he published an account of the Double Cross System in the United States, to avoid violating Britain’s Official Secrets Act.  An interesting life, if not a very interesting book. 

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