Crime Fiction Update I: Classics

April 7, 2021 at 5:22 pm (Mystery fiction)

So: Due to general slothfulness and specific pandemic dullness, I have fallen woefully behind in my book blogging. This is especially true of mysteries, which I’ve been devouring like candy (a handy metaphor for one who can no longer consume actual candy – thanks for that, Type 2).

Let us now attempt to remedy  this woeful state of affairs. I will start with several classics.

Some weeks ago, I had the pleasure of viewing a webinar on crime fiction set at Oxford. This was presented by Daniel Stashower, a writer and critic. I recommend his book The Beautiful Cigar Girl, which tells the story behind the events that gave rise to one of Edgar Allan Poe’s most famous stories, “The Mystery of Marie Roget.”

Herewith the contents of the handout that accompanied this webinar:

An Oxford Tragedy, by J.C. Masterman

Death at the President’s Lodging, by Michael Innes

The Moving Toyshop, by Edmund Crispin

Gaudy Night, by Dorothy Sayers

Trick of the Dark, by Val McDermid

Landscape with Dead Dons, by Robert Robinson

Oxford Blood, by Antonia Fraser

An Instance of the Fingerpost, by Ian Pears

The Oxford Murders, by Guillermo Martinez

The Inspector Morse series, by Colin Dexter

An Oxford Tragedy was a new one on me. Finding that it was available for downloading on Amazon for a mere $4.74, I acquired it and read it. Turns out, there was good reason for never having heard of this title: John Cecil Masterman was an academic, associated for almost his entire life with Oxford. In that time he wrote only two mysteries, of which An Oxford Tragedy, published in 1933, is the first. (The second, The Case of the Four Friends, did not appear until 1957.)

For the most part, I found this an enjoyable work of crime fiction. The enclosed world of the fictional St. Thomas College is beautifully realized, as seen through the eyes of the novel’s narrator, the sixty-year-old Senior Tutor Francis Wheatley Winn. Here he describes one of his favorite regular rituals:

To a middle-aged don, as I might describe myself, or to an old don, as I might almost be described, there is no place more pleasant  than Common Room, no hour more wholly pleasurable than that spent in it immediately after dinner. For here the fellows of St. Thomas’s, having dined, settled down to enjoy the comfort of port and desert, of coffee and cigars,

I really like reading this kind of gently antiquated prose.

Since we are at Oxford in the 1930s, we are dwelling in a largely exclusive male preserve. However, there are women in the lives of several of Wheatley’s colleagues. They are, in fact, crucial to the plot of this novel.

My one reservation concerning An Oxford Tragedy has to do with the conclusion. Masterman piles on a whole lot of explanatory material at the very end. By the time he had finished this exposition, I found myself not caring very much, having been wearied by the whole exercise. I need to mention at this point that I’ve encountered this tendency as well in numerous contemporary crime novels.


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I’d like to mention briefly two other classics. Martin Edwards has said of Julian Symons that his distinguished work as a critic – he’s the author of Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel: A History –  has tended to overshadow his achievements as a novelist. I’d like to sing the praises of one of those achievements. It is entitled The Progress of a Crime. This book received the 1961 Edgar Award for Best Novel. Upon reading it, I could easily see why. Highly recommended.


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Finally, an entry in the American Mystery Classics series. These works are currently being published by Otto Penzler, whose services to the field of crime fiction are great and much appreciated. That said, I was not overly enamored of the several series entries I’d read – until I picked up The Chocolate Cobweb by Charlotte Armstrong. This tale is set once again in Southern California, that favored haunt of American crime fiction:

It was a bright afternoon, windy and clear. On all sides the hills were visible and sharp, cutting the flat land into valleys. The brilliant light picked out the brightest colors, greens in the landscape, red, orange, magenta flowers, and beat them to a sparkling blend. No color could be garish in this sun. The bright air consumed it all.

Twenty-three-year-old Amanda Garth, attractive and restless, manages to insinuate herself into the Garrison family. This distinguished, distinctive, yet in some ways secretive clan had as its patriarch, the painter Tobias Garrison. Matters evolve inevitably, and things become frightening and beyond Amanda’s control.

The Chocolate Cobweb came out in 1948. Charlotte Armstrong won the Edgar Award in 1957 for her novel A Dram of Poison. Have a look at her Wikipedia entry and you’ll see how prolific she was. And highly respected as well.

 

 

1 Comment

  1. armchairreviewer said,

    Glad you enjoyed The Chocolate Cobweb. I did also. I have not read that specific title by Masterman, but I have read and enjoyed Case of Four Friends.

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