Thursday, 27 August 2009

Oxford and Crime






It’s intriguing that such an apparently civilised place as Oxford should have formed the backdrop to so many murder stories, on the page, and on the screen. I’ve much enjoyed working on a new essay about the city’s murderous heritage. Of course, Colin Dexter is the leading writer of Oxford crime, but there have been many others.

The reason for Oxford’s long-term popularity as a setting for crime fiction s is surely not so much the inherently criminal tendencies of the local population as the enthusiasm of alumni of the University, and others associated with it, and with the city, for writing detective stories. For instance, more than thirty old members of Balliol College alone have published crime fiction.

J.C. Masterman, who later became a notable war-time spymaster, and then Provost of Worcester College, is credited with inaugurating the Oxford whodunit set in academe, in 1933, with An Oxford Tragedy. Soon, there was a flurry of books to delight dons and many others. Michael Innes, who again would become a don, introduced his series policeman John Appleby in Death at the President’s Lodging, set in a fictional university strongly reminiscent of Oxford, and Operation Pax sets key scenes in the Bodleian. Innes’ principal disciple was Edmund Crispin (the pen-name adopted by Bruce Montgomery, whose first detective novel was written while he was still an undergraduate.)

Surely the most famous crime novel set in Oxford appeared just four years after An Oxford Tragedy. Dorothy L. Sayers’ Gaudy Night,, in which Somerville College (where Sayers read English) is fictionalised as Shrewsbury College, which she locates in Jowett Walk, on Balliol's cricket ground. Ian Morson’s historical Falconer series is set in medieval Oxford, while Veronica Stallwood has written eleven books to date featuring historical novelist Kate Ivory. The late Michael Dibdin wrote a witty stand-alone set in the city, Dirty Tricks – and fascination with the city is not confined to English authors. And even a novelist from Argentina, Guillermo Martinez, got in on the act. He wrote The Oxford Murders, the film of which I covered in a blog post a while back.

14 comments:

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

I'd realized Oxford was a popular setting, but had no idea to what extent! Thanks for sharing.

There was a repeat here in the States on Sunday night of an Inspector Lewis case (the housewife who is found hanging.) It seemed to be filmed in Oxford instead of in a studio. I wonder how the town feels about so much camera intrusion

Elizabeth
Mystery Writing is Murder

harriet said...

I am just about to move back to Oxford, where I lived for some time before I came up north about 19 years ago. I've read some but not all the novels you mention - must look out for the others!

Philip said...

"J.C. Masterman...is credited with inaugurating the Oxford whodunit set in academe, in 1933, with An Oxford Tragedy." Who so credited Masterman? I think Adam Broome, author of The Oxford Murders, published four years earlier, deserves this credit. He disturbed the slumber of the dreaming spires rather more than Masterman did. The latter conjured only one dead don. Broome had the Regius Professor of Latin killed in Wellington Square, the Reader in French bumped off the in Turl, and a philosophy tutor knocked off his perch in Port Meadow. Lovely stuff, in more ways than one.

GeraniumCat said...

I hadn't come across the Dibdin book, I must find that. I'm reading the Veronica Stallwood series as it turns up in the library - not fast enough for my liking. At least one of the Hazel Holt books is set in Oxford too - in The Cruellest Month the muder takes place in the Bodleian.

Martin Edwards said...

Elizabeth, tv cameras have long been a feature of the Oxford scene (when I was a student years back, my college was the scene of an adaptation of a Graham Greene short story, for instance), so I think the locals take them for granted!

Martin Edwards said...

Harriet, lucky you moving back to Oxford! Maybe we will bump into each other one of these days.

Martin Edwards said...

Hi Philip. Many thanks for this. I've never heard of Broome, and this book doesn't feature in various genre reference books I've consulted. But a check on the internet shows this book has recently been republished, so clearly I must lay my hands on a copy. And factor Broome into my essay on Oxford whilst I'm at it! Can you tell me more about the story?

Martin Edwards said...

Hi Geranium Cat. I really enjoyed the Dibdin book - witty and ironic. It was adapted for tv with Martin Clunes, if memory serves.

crimeficreader said...

Martin, of late there's also been Victoria Blake with an Oxford theme to her novels: four (I believe) with Orion. I read the first and own but have not read the next two, as so many other things have come to my attention since. I'd tend towards saying the first may be in cosy territory. The biggest memory is of an old lady neighbour of the protag in London, wonderfully characterised with cat and slippers...

seana said...

I want to read that Dibdin novel now too.

I'm going to propose Max Beerbohm's Zuleika Dobson as one of the first crime novels set in Oxford. True, it's more a satire than a murder mystery, but Zuleika as mass murderer is certainly worth at least a little consideration...

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks, Rhian and Seana. These comments are very useful, bearing in mind I'm hoping to finalise my essay over the bank holiday weekend!

Philip said...

Martin, glad this was of some help. I should have mentioned, given the vein of the post, that Broome (Godfrey Warden James) was himself an Oxford man and an erstwhile barrister, though he worked, I think, mainly in other fields. Now, The OM was his second novel -- second, at least, of a criminous sort -- and perhaps it rather shows, for I should say structurally it's a bit weak and in other ways uncertain, though perhaps that befits a pioneer. His official detective here and also in The Cambridge Murders that came seven years later, is Chief Inspector Bramley, but, oddly given his reappearance, in most of The CM the sleuthing is done by his deputy, Insp. Worplesdon. Furthermore, the second half of The CM veers off in the general direction of Africa. (The CM is also available from Ostara -- interesting name, interesting publisher, especially for crime fiction people.) So Bramley makes this first appearance in 1929, but here the detective work is done by a student: Athanasius Septimus Konti. He is a student at 'St. Anthony's College', which gave me a smile, as it may others who know St. Antony's sans 'h', founded eleven years later. He is also one of those Oxbridge students -- there were a lot in the 20s and 30s -- who made a splash from the start, "the cynosure of all neighbouring eyes" (apologies to Milton) for whatever reason. Putting the two books together, I rather think this was not quite the milieu or the form in which Broome was happiest. And that makes me curious to read something of his longer crime series set in Africa and featuring Commissioner Denzil Grison -- Broome worked in the government of Sierra Leone, and I just have a suspicion he may be more certain in that context. Crime novels of that time set in Africa must have a great interest about them anyway. But none of this is to say I didn't like The OM -- I did, and it's worth noting that it appeared at the end of the 'Oxford myth' period, though the myth would linger for a few more years.

I think I read somewhere, and in a fairly recent piece, that to that point there were some 116 crime novels set in Oxford University. That would be about 18% to the total number of Oxford novels counted by Judy Batson in 1989. A work of 1957 noted that 85% of academe-based crime fiction was set in Oxford, most of the rest in Cambridge. Food for thought. And so it is I'm puzzled that Ostara has put Broome's The CM in its series titled 'Cambridge Crime', whereas The OM is subsumed in the series 'College Crime'. Whether the latter is actually devoted to Oxford I can't tell -- I don't find Ostara the easiest publisher to get at.

Kerrie said...

The idea of crime fiction set in Cambridge just doesn't seem to have the pull to it Martin

Martin Edwards said...

Philip, that is very helpful info. Thanks.
Kerrie - well, I agree, but then I'm biased! And in fact I do like Cambridge a lot, though it's years since my last visit.