A slow, “philosophical” detective story set in the fictional St. Thomas’ College, An Oxford Tragedy features a single murder and a rather languorous pace taken to reach the solution. Originally published in 1933 and written, as the back cover of the Dover edition breathlessly informs the reader, “by a real-life Oxford don” (surely a locution never utilized by a don of any stripe before or since), the novel is largely a claustrophobic affair in which the reader must try to work out from a narrow pool of suspects which of their close colleagues is, in fact, a brutal murderer.
Narrated by Senior Tutor Francis Winn, the tale seems at first to recount an idyllic existence in College, until a brutal event threatens the security and peace of existence within the academic cloister. The story of the murder of Shirley, an unpopular don who is shot in the back of the head while waiting in another academic’s rooms, is fortunately livened by the presence of Viennese lawyer and amateur criminologist Ernst Brendel, who happens to be a guest of the college when the tragedy takes place. But even Brendel cannot save this story, which I put down after having only read roughly half, and only picked up again months later.
I have mentioned elsewhere that, as a reader, I’m always on the look-out for overlooked gems in fiction: books that have been obscured by time but really deserve to be re-read. This was my hope in reading An Oxford Tragedy, apart from the setting, I was hoping for a book that would fit the bill of a “lost classic,” perhaps on the order of Robert Robinson’s Landscape with Dead Dons (which I must re-read and review before long). As with any detective story, there is the usual effort at clarifying the muddle of suspects, motives, timelines and opportunities, but Scotland Yard, represented by Inspector Cotter, draw a blank. It falls to Brendel, aided by his foil, Winn, to resolve the mystery, which takes a very long time, it seems.
It almost seems as though Masterman, in writing this tale, constructed a fable so completely disconnected from the outside world that it ceased to have any relevance or interest for anyone who *wasn’t* an Oxford don in the 1930s, which I daresay is most of the modern readership. So, having isolated his tale to a particular class in a particular time, Masterman has largely failed in writing a novel that could have lived beyond its own day, indeed, the book really doesn’t do much even for the sympathetic reader. There simply are no likable, relatable, or compelling characters: Inspector Cotter ends up being a foil without a real opponent, and Brendel, who would feature in a second book by Masterman, grows dull and is over-indulged in narrative before the tale reaches its conclusion. Although artfully crafted, by the end, the reader is simply left wondering: “so?” Either that, or I simply have no patience for overly philosophical detective stories anymore. An Oxford Tragedy is historically interesting, but ultimately fails, in my view, to be a genuinely engaging and enjoyable detective story. It is worth reading if you stumble across a copy and have some time to kill. Three stars.
Originally reviewed 9 July 2015.
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