J. C. Masterman (1891 – 1977)

OIP (4)Born on 12 January 1891, John Cecil Masterman was educated at the Royal Naval Colleges of Osborne and Dartmouth and at Worcester College, Oxford, where he read Modern History. He later studied at the University of Freiburg where he was also an exchange lecturer in 1914, which was where he was when World War I broke out. Consequently he was interned as an enemy alien for four years in a prisoner-of-war camp in Ruhleben, where he spent much of his time polishing his German. After his return from captivity, he became tutor of Modern History at Christ Church, Oxford, where he was also censor from 1920 to 1926. In the 1920s he became a very good cricketer, playing first-class for H D G Leveson-Gower’s XI, Harlequins, the Free Foresters, and also for Oxfordshire in the Minor Counties Championship and the MCC. He toured North America with the Free Foresters in 1923, Ireland with the MCC in 1924, Egypt with H H Martineau’s XI in 1930 and 1931 and Canada with the MCC in 1937. He also played tennis and field hockey, participating in international competitions. As a result of his sporting prowess he was acknowledged as a master gamesman in Stephen Potter’s book Gamesmanship.

A crime novel, An Oxford Tragedy, published in 1933, was his first work and he followed this in 1957 with his second and final crime novel, The Case of the Four Friends. He also wrote one novel, Fate Cannot Harm Me, a play Marshal Ney, an Oxford Guide Book, To Teach the Senators Wisdom and his autobiography, On the Chariot Wheel (1975).

When World War II broke out, he became chairman of the Twenty Committee, a group of British intelligence officials, who were responsible for the Double-Cross System, which turned German spies into double agents working for the British. Apparently its name was a pun based on the Roman numeral XX and its double-cross purpose. In 1945 he had privately published a history of his time working on the double-cross system, The Double-Cross System in the War of 1939 to 1945, and it was finally officially published in 1972, in the USA because the English government objected to its publication under the Officials Secrets Act. After World War II he returned to Oxford, becoming Provost of Worcester College from 1946 to 1961 and Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University from 1957 to 1958. He was knighted for his wartime services in 1959. He died in Oxford on 6 June 1977. (Source: Goodreads)

A classic Oxford mystery predating Gaudy Night was An Oxford Tragedy by J. C. Masterman in which the Senior Tutor at St. Thomas’s College acts as Watson to an engaging amateur sleuth, the Viennese lawyer Ernest Bredel. After the crime is solved order is restored in the form of an argument between dons over the redecoration of the college rooms left unoccupied by killer and victim. Masterman took twenty-four years to write a follow-up, even though he was far from indolent. [As it can be implied of his biography]. … . John Cecil Masterman joined the Detection Club after the Second World War, as did the much more prolific Michael Innes. (Martin Edwards, The Golden Age of Murder, HarperCollinsPublishers, 2015. p. 276)

Contrary to some views J.C. Masterman was not the first writer to set a mystery in an academic environment. Four years earlier in 1929, Adam Broome had published The Oxford Murders.


(Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC. V. G. Gollancz (UK), 1933)

Book Description: Francis Wheatley Winn, Senior Tutor at St Thomas’ s College, is ready for a cosy night of dining, port, and pleasant company. Ernst Brendel, Viennese lawyer and crime specialist, has come to Oxford to lecture in Law, and the regular residents of St Thomas’s are pleased to have such an interesting guest to liven up their after dinner chat. Talk soon turns to murder, and Winn finds the subject altogether unpalatable, even if his colleagues seem to relish the details of past cases Brendel has worked on. But then real Murder breaks the cosy calm of the evening, shocking the inhabitants out of their frivolous talk. Now Winn must overcome his distaste to work with Brendel in uncovering the perpetrator of this terrible crime. First published in 1933, An Oxford Tragedy is a classic murder mystery, with Brendel at its centre as a master of hypothesis and deduction. (Source: Bloomsbury)..

An Oxford Tragedy has been reviewed, among others, at A Penguin a week, Mystery File, My Reader’s Block.

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