From bloodshed at the Bod to carnage in Cornmarket, author Martin Edwards investigates a prime suspect behind the rise of classic British detective fiction.
By Martin Edwards
Detective fiction is global and enduring, with much to offer whether your taste runs to Nordic noir or Raymond Chandler’s California. Few places anywhere in the world, though, have made an impact on the genre to rival Oxford’s. Classic detective novels have used the city as a setting for everything from trouble in the Turl and blood spilled in the Bodleian to carnage in Cornmarket. And countless writers living, working in, or educated at Oxford have made a notable impact on the crime genre.
Oxford famously supplies the backdrop for the television series Inspector Morse, Lewis, and most recently Endeavour, as well as the novels by Colin Dexter which are their inspiration. The stories are ingenious, but both books and TV shows gain their flavour from the local landscape — especially the pubs. The Perch Inn is a favourite haunt of Morse and Lewis, while The Dead of Jericho, the first episode and one of the best, saw multiple deaths in the vicinity of Canal Street.
Guillermo Martinez’ The Oxford Murders, filmed in 2008, concerns an Oxford logician and cryptic clues to a series of killings. Martinez plays an erudite game with his readers, appropriate for a story set in a place where the intellect is so highly prized. But there is a gritty side to real-life Oxford too, illustrated in recent thrillers featuring female investigator Zoe Boehm, and written by local resident and Balliol man Mick Herron.
There is nothing new about Oxford’s contribution to detective fiction. During the ‘Golden Age of murder’ between the two world wars, several classic mystery novels were set in the city. Gaudy Night by Dorothy L Sayers, with poison pen letters and obscene graffiti desecrating a fictionalised version of her old college, Somerville, remains the best-known. Sayers’ preface apologised to Balliol for erecting Shrewsbury College on its ‘spacious and sacred cricket ground’ in Jowett Walk.
Sayers dominated a group of young Oxford graduates who were prime movers in a drive to improve the literary standards of detective fiction. The Detection Club, the world’s first social network for crime writers, began informally with a series of dinners hosted by Anthony Berkeley Cox, who had read Classics at Univ, before taking a more formal shape in 1930.
Cox banged the drum for quality crime fiction. Writing as Francis Iles, he explored criminal psychology in groundbreaking books such as Before the Fact, which features a character closely — and wittily — based on Sayers. When Alfred Hitchcock filmed it as Suspicion, even the Master of Suspense failed to match the tension and darkness of the novel’s finale.
Members were elected to the Detection Club by secret ballot, and were supposed to have written detective novels of ‘admitted merit’. Oxford graduates dominated the Club; four of the first thirty members came from Balliol (also the alma mater of Sayers’ sleuth, Lord Peter Wimsey). This quartet included Monsignor Ronald Knox, theologian, satirist, and inventor of ‘the Detective Decalogue’, a tongue-in-cheek set of commandments for crime writers, such as: ‘Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.’ Another Balliol member was G D H Cole, economist, socialist, and academic, who wrote a long line of whodunits in collaboration with his wife Margaret.
In 1915, Cole had published a poem by Sayers in Oxford Poetry; shortly afterwards, he, Margaret, and Sayers debated forming a crime-writing syndicate. That idea came to nothing, but later the trio collaborated with Berkeley and other Detection Club members in a ‘round robin’ detective novel, with each chapter written by a different author. The Floating Admiral proved remarkably popular, and a reissue eighty years after its first publication in 1931 also enjoyed excellent sales.
Again in 1931, David Frome’s The Body in the Turl (the clue is in the title) started a vogue for Oxford mysteries. Two years later, An Oxford Tragedy by J C Masterman (later Vice-Chancellor of the University), saw an unpopular tutor shot in the rooms of the Dean of St Thomas’s College. A host of light-hearted mysteries quickly followed from fellow Detection Club members Michael Innes (in real life J I M Stewart, Student [i.e. fellow] of Christ Church ) and Edmund Crispin (aka Bruce Montgomery) who wrote his first whodunit while still an undergraduate at St John’s.
The vaults of the Bodleian make a suitably dramatic setting for the climax of Innes’ thriller Operation Pax. In Crispin’s The Moving Toyshop, a suspect is chased through Parson’s Pleasure; the detective gatecrashes a rehearsal of the Handel Society in the Sheldonian; and there is gunfire in Cornmarket. Crispin describes the city as a ‘grey maze’. No description could be more apt for the evocative background of so many detective stories almost as complex and entrancing as Oxford itself.
Martin Edwards is author of The Golden Age of Murder, just out from HarperCollins, and of seventeen detective novels, including the Lake District Mysteries.
Insatiable appetite for murder? Find out more about Oxford’s role in the detective story:
Oxford photographs © Oxford University Images / Stuart Bebb. Book jacket © HarperCollins.