Thursday, 22 October 2009

Academe in Mystery and Detective Fiction


When I wrote a while back that An Oxford Tragedy by J.C. Masterman was regarded as the first mystery set in the city’s academic environs, I was corrected by a comment from Philip, who pointed out that, in 1929, four years earlier, Adam Broome had published The Oxford Murders.

I realised that, instead of relying on my memory of the various reference books that acclaim Masterman’s book and ignore Broome’s, that I should have checked a voluminous book that I bought a few years ago called Academe in Mystery and Detective Fiction. Written by John B. Kramer, it is a real labour of love, commenting on no fewer than 486 academic mysteries from 1910 to 1999.

This is quite a bibliography, compiled with a great deal of discipline. The basic plan of the book is that each of the 486 annotations should comprise two paragraphs. The first describes the story (‘paying special attention to academic disciplines, academic ranks, and the location and nature of the academic institution’) while the second discusses the author.

Kramer’s book is the sort of project that will never appear on any best-seller list, but I admire the endeavour, and he has produced a valuable resource that I have dipped into infrequently in the past. I’ll consult it more diligently when writing about academic mysteries in future. Meanwhile, I’m pleased to say that The Oxford Murders, and Broome’s later book The Cambridge Murders, have both recently been republished in attractive editions by Ostara Publishing, whose enterprise really is commendable. We need more neglected books to reappear!

10 comments:

Philip said...

Very useful follow-up, Martin -- an honour to get a mention, I must say. This lead me along a path that ended in my wondering whether you know of Kessinger Publishing:Rare Reprints. I came to this because I noticed that Johnston's and West's The Innocent Murderers, an American work of 1910 and the novel Kramer gives as the first academic mystery, can be read online (Internet Archive: Free Download: The Innocent Murderers). I had a look at a few pages and at once suspected, though I can't be sure, that it is based on the Harvard Webster/Parkman case of 1849 -- a corker of a true crime case -- and also that it may be dismal reading. But I also found that The Innocent Murderers has been reprinted by Kessinger. Their website at kessinger.net. lists a 'Mystery and Crime' category with 1261 titles, though therein is a problem: it encompasses everything from treatises of Beccaria and Lombroso to works on the Kabbalah and Buddhism. But if you have patience you will find rare stuff indeed in the way of crime novels, true crime and related works : Ottolengui's An Artist in Crime, the crime novels of Julian Hawthorne (son of Nathaniel), Jules Verne's An Antarctic Mystery, hard-to-find works of Wallace and Rinehart, Wilkie Collins' Alicia Warlock, two treatises on Edwin Drood...these I noticed just in glancing at a few pages, so all in all it must be a bit of a treasure trove for those interested in the nooks and crannies of the field, and in early crime literature, both fiction and non-fiction, in particular. Of course, you may be way ahead of me where this is concerned, Martin, but I thought it worth giving it a mention for the benefit of those to whom it may be new. I should add that Kessinger reprints rare works in a pretty full gamut of subjects, as witness the list of categories on their site.

Margot Kinberg said...

Martin - Thanks for letting us know about Academe in Mystery and Detective Fiction It sounds like a really useful resource; I'm going to see if I can find a copy. Books like that are very helpful if one's trying to remember who wrote a particular book, or what the title is of particular author's work. There are still some things that aren't on the internet : ).

Maxine said...

I saw the movie version of The Oxford Murders on a plane, and I have to say I thought it was terrible. I appreciate that books are invariably better than their associated movies, but if the "plot twist" was the same in the book as it was in this risible movie, then I am rather sad.

One academic mystery I've recently read and enjoyed is "Publish or Perish" by Margot Kinberg. Rather different from The Oxford Murders, but refreshingly direct and written from the perspective of someone rather familiar with some standard academic dilemmas!

vegetableduck said...

Martin, is there much info on Adam Broome there? As I recollect, he was the son of novelist Florence Warden and was a civil servant in Africa (hence the African settings of most of his books). His books as I recall are rather colonialist in attitude, including The Oxford Murders.

Philip said...

Whoah, Maxine. That 2008 movie you saw was based on Guillermo Martinez' The Oxford Murders published in 2003, not Broome's 1929 novel. I'd fall over sideways if Hollywood made a movie of that one. I haven't seen that movie, but I did enjoy Martinez' novel quite considerably -- a murder mystery that has its resolution in a mathematical sequence and has as its author an Argentinian mathematician who did post-doc work at Oxford. What they did with it in the movie, I'd probably rather not know.

Vegetableduck, I wrote a bit about Broome here a while back. He was Godfrey Warden James (1888-1963), born London, ed. Oxford. I think his parents were Florence Warden, novelist and actress, and George E. James. Trained barrister; worked as schoolmaster and tutor; Development Officer of the Trustee Saving Bank Association; Administrative Office in the government of Sierre Leone. Between 1928 and 1946 he wrote, I think, twelve novels: the Oxford and Cambridge murder mysteries featuring Chief Inspector Bramley, and the rest set in Africa and featuring Commissioner Denzil Grigson. I cannot say with any certainty, but it may be that the African novels are, in fact, in whatever degree sympathetic to the governed peoples. I saw this suggested. I'm very curious about them myself, but haven't obtained any. Few books of the sort from that period would not now be susceptible to charges of displaying colonial attitudes for what, to an historian, would be a very obvious reason -- they are books of that period. It is a matter of degree and kind, and whether there is any challenge to the status quo.

vegetableduck said...

Martin, a I recall, Broome's Oxford Murders had an African undergraduate, son of a chieftain, whose portrayal makes Christie's Mr. Akibimbo or whatever his name was in Hickory, Dickory Dock look positively progressive! Have you read Elspeth Huxley's African detective novels? I think those are more interesting. She was a first-rater writer, but the detection is better too. I picked up some of the Broomes a few years ago and wasn't fantastically enthralled. Of course, it's nice to see anything from those days being revived, but I think there are worthier candidates for revival (Henry Wade, right?). I suspect having "Oxford" and "Cambridge" in the titles helped in the case of those particular two Broome books.

I remember one of his books set all in Africa where the hero kicks his native "boy" as a matter of course. Interesting from a social history perspective, but oo-er, ugh!

Maxine said...

Thanks for the correction, Philip, that's useful to know!

Maxine said...

By the way, wasn't that spooky that I recommended a book by Margot Kinberg that I'd just read - when her comment was above mine in the queue! (Still in moderation so I had no idea at the time that it was there).

Philip said...

Anyone who wants or needs to pursue Broome further into Africa (I really don't myself, at least not at present) might take a look at William D. Reynolds' "The Novels of Adam Broome: Golden Age Detection in Africa", in Crime and Detection Stories 18 (1992). Reynolds is an American academic who makes interesting forays into crime fiction. I came across something he wrote on Clinton-Baddeley. Broome is mentioned in the highly esteemed G.D. Killam's Africa in English Fiction, 1874-1939, Ibadan Univ. Press, 1968. Also in Journal of the Historical Society of Nigeria, Vol.3, The Society, 1967, and Broteria: cristianismo e cultura, Vol. 45, s.n., 1947.

vegetableduck said...

It would be interesting to read the CADS piece, thanks!