I was fortunate enough to spend an afternoon recently at the annual conference of the International Association of Crime Writers, held in the peaceful setting of St Hilda’s College. The delegates pack include a piece on The Oxford Crime Novel written by Susan Moody, novelist, former Chair of the Crime Writers Association and born in this fair, murderous city of ours. She very kindly gave permission for the piece to be included here:
The Oxford Crime Novel
This is necessarily merely a brief overlook at a wide subject, one in which I’m defining an Oxonian crime novel as one mainly set in Oxford, one written by an Oxford-dwelling author or one with an Oxford protagonist. Books, in other words in which, as someone wrote: “Oxford Blood is spilled with curiously exuberant passion and freedom.”
Some years ago, that brilliant Oxford crime novelist, Michael Innes, wrote “The senior members of Oxford and Cambridge colleges are undoubtedly among the most moral and level-headed of men. They do nothing aberrant; they do nothing rashly or in haste. Their conventional associations are with learning, unworldliness, absence of mind and endearing and always innocent foible. They prove peculiarly resistive to the slightly rummy psychology that most detective-stories require. And this is a pity if only because their habitat…offers such a capital frame for the quiddities and wilie-beguilies of the craft.”
Among the earliest of them was J C Masterman, Provost of Worcester College and later Vice Chancellor of the University of Oxford. In 1933, he published ‘An Oxford Tragedy’, the book credited with the start of murder set among the dreaming spires and ivory towers of Oxford. An Oxford Tragedy is set in the fictional Oxford college of St. Thomas’s. When an unpopular tutor is found shot dead in the Dean’s rooms, a visiting Austrian criminologist, Ernst Brendel, takes it upon himself to try to solve the crime, which he of course does, leaving the murderer to do the gentlemanly thing and commit suicide.
Masterman’s follow-up came in 1957, with ‘The Case of the Four Friends’. This again starred Brendel, and was described as a diversion in pre-detection, in which Brendel relates how he “pre-constructed” a crime, rather than reconstructing it as in the conventional manner. As he says, “To work out the crime before it is committed, to foresee how it will be arranged, and then to prevent it! That’s a triumph indeed, and is worth more than all the convictions in the world”.
You can’t argue with that. But does it make for a good read? I’m not so sure. (sadly both books are currently Out of Print)
A couple of years after ‘An Oxford Tragedy’, another Oxford academic was more successful at producing readable crime fiction, albeit for the most part not set in Oxford. Nicholas Blake, the pseudonym of Cecil Day Lewis, the former Poet Laureate – and yes, father of Daniel, the actor — is nonetheless a prime example of the donnish school of writing, and both the author and the protagonist are products of Oxford University.
Blake’s detective, Nigel Strangeways, was originally based on W.H. Auden, whom C. Day Lewis knew when Auden was at Oxford, both of them being aspiring poets and littérateurs, and both later occupying the post of Professor of Poetry in the University.
Nicholas Blake appears at first to be writing out of the same deep bedrock of certainty as later Oxford writers like Michael Innes or Edmund Crispin, larding his prose with literary references which range from the classics to more recent poets. Literary puns abound.
And yet, there is a slightly political, even a faintly radical note to his work—a slight stirring among the rhododendrons, a hint of mutiny in the servants’ hall—which you wouldn’t find in Innes or Crispin. He expresses left wing views. He even quotes from T.S. Eliot, who at the time these books were written was considered the most iconoclastic of poets.
There are no large insights in those post-war Oxford mysteries. No dark underbellies, and precious little social comment. But why should there have been? At the time they were written, detective fiction was still mostly regarded as light entertainment for the middle and academic classes, looked down on as fiction for the masses. However, by the time the Oxbridge dons turned to crime-writing, the genre had attained a certain amount of respectability. They wrote with complete assurance, not only about themselves, but also about the world in which they operated. Unlike Chandler and Hammett, both in America, their fiction did not treat of moral ambiguity. There are few doubts in these novels, no ethical dilemmas. Good is good, and bad is nearly always unmitigatedly bad.
In these donnish crime stories, it wasn’t necessary for the writers to keep on announcing how upright and virtuous their heroes were, as Hammett and Chandler did. There were no declarations about mean streets and men who were not themselves mean. It was surplus to requirement. The reader would have understood that as Englishmen, what else would these protagonists be but honorable? As Englishmen, how else would they behave but as gentlemen?
And by the mid 1940s, no real-time don need be ashamed to be caught reading one. Or, for that matter, writing one. Or even being the protagonist in one! As solid members of the professional middle classes, their readers did not want dispatches from beyond the frontiers of their own experience. For such readers, these Oxford-set novels were entertainment, an intellectual puzzle, with a delicious dash of literacy thrown in to reassure themselves that they were not behaving frivolously by reading such fare.
Nor did they want any sex or violence. Bloodshed is very seldom described, though a great deal of disgust and abhorrence is expressed at the possibility of it. Particularly if people with foreign connections were involved! A high moral tone was taken, as the English geared themselves up for war, suffered through a war, or came out at the end of a war which—with a little help from their friends— they had indubitably won.
As for sex, it was a popular fallacy of the times that the middle classes did not have sex very much – and the academic classes not at all.
When I was Chairman of the Crime Writers’ Association, I tried to have our prestigious Diamond Dagger Award bestowed on Michael Innes, but my suggestion was voted down on the completely unfair grounds that a) he had done nothing for the crime novel, with which I violently disagreed, and b) he was in any case—that dreaded word—elitist.
When I challenged the Committee on this, asking what exactly they meant, it boiled down to the fact that Innes’s characters, like Edmund Crispin’s, including or especially, the policemen, were literate, had read the great classics of English literature, and didn’t mind punning on them or quoting from them when the need arose—and often when it didn’t.
But in those days, dons really did and, in fact, often still do, talk like that. In one of the most hilarious scenes in Operation Pax, Michael Innes gives us some wonderful Oxonian nonsense. Dining at High Table, one of the Fellows happens to mention some careless remark of his young son’s about seeing a man running away from some other men. Immediately the rest of the dons take this up, speculating in the most earnest of tones on what the son might otherwise have seen, supposing he had not in fact seen what he said he saw, offering hypothesis and conjecture to explain the truth or otherwise of the son’s claims, postulating theories which gradually get wilder and wilder.
At the end of the scene, you realize that Innes has been taking off the kind of pretentious discussion of textual criticism with which, as an English don, he must have been depressingly familiar.
Yet, although he is better at plotting than, say, Crispin, he handles farce much less authoritatively, and with a heavier hand. Nor are his characters as memorable, though his prose is richer, and has a more purposeful intent. Although he relies on many of the same effects as Crispin—for instance, his use of literary puns, apposite quotations, excellent scene setting, robust and sometimes facetious humour—his deeper learning comes through.
Michael Innes has written some of the very best Oxford crime novels, among them, Death At the President’s Lodgings, in which the college becomes the equivalent of the locked room, or isolated country house of Golden Age crime fiction, Hamlet, Revenge, and The Journeying Boy..
Incidentally, some years ago, I was asked to edit a book of the 100 Best Detective Novels Ever Written, as chosen by the members of the CWA – or, as my middle son called, it As chosen by those who think they wrote them.
Be that as it may, the top novel came out as Gaudy Night, by Dorothy Sayers (who worked for a number of years as Sir Basil Blackwell’s editorial assistant in this bookshop) , another book set in an Oxford college, and peopled by clever dons. Rereading it, recently, I could barely get through it, even though I’ve always been a Lord Peter Wimsey groupie. What a load of pretentious rubbish a lot of it is… especially Wimsey and Harriet Vane chatting each other up in Latin! That’s elitist, if you like. It was deeply depressing to see how badly Gaudy Night had weathered the passing years,.
Beside elitism, other charges have been leveled at these Oxonian books. Critics claim that the puns quiver and rock like scenery in a village hall, herald their punch lines well in advance, and that the introduction of literary references is self-conscious and maladroit. Their plots place far too much reliance on chance and coincidence – but then they say that about a lot of today’s crime novelists!!
What of more modern Oxford detectives? Veronica Stallwood‘s protagonist, Kate Ivory, historical novelist and amateur sleuth, lives and works in Oxford and is often drawn into situations featuring local landmarks, such as the Bodleian library, the Sheldonian or various different colleges. There is more than a dozen of these likable mysteries, and by no means could they be called elitist … which in today’s publishing climate may well be a good thing for the author!
Another contemporary crime novelist who sets her books mostly in Oxford is Victoria Blake. Her protagonist is the psychologically-damaged Sam Falconer, Oxford-born and bred and former world judo champion. Although so far, there is only a handful of the Sam Falconer books, they are well-written and witty, and carry on the Oxford tradition with panache.
Colin Dexter follows on the great tradition of Oxford sleuths, although his protagonist is in
fact a policeman, rather than a don, and a great link between Town and Gown. Dexter’s books are densely clever and his protagonist, Inspector Morse, is surely one of the best-known detectives in the world … this being as much down to the excellent and beautifully-produced TV series as to the books. Like Colin himself, Morse is a happy frequenter of pubs, a highly literate beer-drinker, an ardent cruciverbalist and a Wagner-lover, whose easy irascibility is always eased by the strains of teutonic melody issuing from his music centre.
Although Morse may have felt that his drinking needed no justification – and why should it? – he did once say that if he found he wasn’t thinking very clearly, he would finish off his half bottle of Scotch and open another one, at which point his mind would begin to sharpen up. Morse often tells his Sergeant, “Lewis, I don’t drink because I like drinking; I drink because it helps me to think.”
Which explains why so many scenes in the Morse TV series take place in pubs – though perhaps not why it always seems to be Lewis who pays for the pints!
And finally, to what for my money is the best Oxford detective of them all …
I was startled and alarmed – even indignant – see that, at a recent crime conference, Edmund Crispin was mentioned as a Forgotten Author. Forgotten? Are you kidding? For me, and many many others, neither Edmund Crispin nor his detective, Gervase Fen, could be further away from Forgotten.
Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin were both up at St John’s College with Crispin, whose real name was Bruce Montgomery (he borrowed his pseudonym from Michael Innes’ book Hamlet, Revenge.) Amis later described the first time he and Larkin noticed him
The man, along with an indefinable and daunting air of maturity, had a sweep of wavy auburn hair, a silk dressing-gown in some non-primary shade and a walk that looked eccentric and mincing, though I found out later that it was the result of severe congenital deformity in both feet.
When more fully attired, he inclined to a fancy-waistcoated, suede-shoed style, along with cigarette holders and rings. They made me uneasy, especially the last two items, which at about that time were almost compulsory for villains in British films.
And even Philip Larkin, himself quite a fancy dresser, disapproved.
“I say, I don’t much care for those rings of Bruce’s,” he said to Amis. “They’re awfully flashy.”
“Yeah, and foreign.”
“Yeah, and common.”
Crispin was one of those unfortunate people who peak early. In 1944, while still an undergraduate, he published his first crime novel, The Case of the Gilded Fly—or as Amis and Larkin called it: The Gelded Fly. His crime novels came out yearly until 1952. In 1953, Crispin published a collection of short stories.
After that, there was a twenty-five year gap until in 1977, the year before he died, he produced The Glimpses of the Moon, the 9th Gervase Fen novel, which, as Kingsley Amis rather bitchily puts it, “We had all been rightly dreading.” His publishers announced on the cover: “Worth Waiting For!” Sadly, it wasn’t.
So, Forgotten or not, the question has to be asked: does Edmund Crispin still count?
Of course! He counts, first of all, over and above any other consideration, because of the wit and humour of his books, the grace of his style, and the personal charm of his protagonist, Gervase Fen, Professor of English Language and Literature in the University of Oxford. Fen is totally unalarming, endearingly boyish, his dark hair ineffectually slicked down with water, though a few mutinous spikes always stick up on the crown of his head. He drives a red sports car of exceptional stridency, called Lily Christine III. He has shrewd and humorous ice-blue eyes – but wait until the villains start trying to get the better of him, and see just how quickly those blue eyes grow icy cold.
It is not his looks which entrance the reader, however, but his behaviour. This is clearly a man who has never grown up, an academic Peter Pan. I’ve always loved Fen’s exuberance, his extrovert character, his unconventional behaviour, his fitful enthusiasms. His intellectual ability is never in doubt. This is, after all, a renowned critic and scholar. There is no denying that some of Crispin’s plots are weak, that sometimes he lapses from wit into facetiousness, that the form occasionally overwhelms the content. But he is emphatically not forgotten, and indeed not only have the Crispin books often been reprinted, but some of them are now available on Kindle.
There’s progress for you!