What is it about academics and detective stories? The question has been asked on numerous occasions and noted sourly or with amusement even more often. At the end of Edmund Crispin's Love Lies Bleeding, which takes place in a school (well, two schools, really) rather than a college, Professor Gervase Fen (one of my favourite sleuths but more of that in the next posting) wants to tell his friend Horatio Stanford, the Headmaster of Castrevenford School, about his idea for a rather exciting detective story (not like those insipid ones written by Edmund Crispin) but Dr Stanford is not persuaded:
"Oh Gervase," he said, "if you must write a detective story - and far too many dons write them as it is - why not use the events of this week-end?"This, naturally, is dismissed by Fen as being piffle. He wants to write about a girl in the Catskill Mountains. So far as we know, he never does, which is just as well. His friend puts his finger on something important: far too many dons write detective stories.
That is still true though with the various reforms in higher education has taken away a good deal of their spare time. You cannot write too many detective stories if you have to fill in forms and deal with administrative matters. But back in the good old days ....
As far as I can tell the first person to note the link between academia and detective stories was Marjorie Nicolson, the first woman President of Phi Beta Kappa among other achievements. She it was, who in April 1929 published a sharp-eyed essay in the Atlantic Monthly, entitled The Professor and the Detective. In it she dealt with the dual question of why academics like reading and writing detective stories so much, insisting that it was not about escape from life. Au contraire.
Yes, the detecitve story does constitute escape, but it is escape not from life, but from literature. We grant willingly that we find in it release. Our 'revolt' - so mysteriously explained by the psychologists - is simple enough: we have revolted from an excessive subjectivity to welcome objewctivity; from long-drawn-out dissections of emotion to straightforward appeal to intellect; from reiterated emphasis upon men and women as victims either of circumstances or of their glands to a suggestion that men and women may consciously plot and consciously plan; from the 'stream of consciousness' which threatends to engulf us in it Lethean montony to analystes of purpose, controlled and directed by a thinking mind; from formlessness to form; from the sophomoric to the mature; most of all from a smart and easy pessimist which interprets men and the universe in terms of unmoral purposelessness to a rebelief in a universe governed by cause and effect. All this we find in the detective story.So, no, it is not simply an expression of the basic futile nastiness that envelops academic life.
Marjorie Nicolson also adds that the new form is being turned into art, which may produce classics, and among them are
... Oxford and Cambride gons, a distinguished economist, a supposedly distinguished aesthetician (we have only his pseudonymous rod for his identity), an historian, and a scientist...I assume the economist is G. D. H. Cole, who had already started writing his detective stories as well as his works of economics but the others are a little vague, though later on she might have listed J. C. Masterman as one of the distinguished Oxford dons, author of An Oxford Tragedy, published in 1933 and of the slightly odd The Case of the Four Friends, published in 1957. Masterman was also immensely influential in the world of intelligence but that is another story.
So far as I can make out An Oxford Tragedy is the first detective story that takes place actually inside an Oxford college, St Thomas's in this case. Julian Symons certainly dismissed Michael Innes's claims to have invented the sub-genre in Death at the President's Lodging, by pointing to Masterman's novel. Indeed, the first Appleby story in which he comes back to Oxford to investigate the rather convoluted murder of the President of St Anthony's College, was not published till 1936. (I think we can dismiss that charming pretence that the events of the novel take place in some weird place, called the University of Bletchley, the one created by undergraduates escaping from Oxford, who did not get as far as Cambridge. Nobody who has ever spent any time in Oxford can fail to recognize the place in Innes's first novel.)
To use Symons's classification, Appleby is a farceur. The novels about him tend to be complicated, full of ridiculous converstaions and even more ridiculous characters. Death at the President's Lodging is no exception. Appleby refers several times to the strange and subtle working of the most brilliant minds that have collected in St Anthony's College but as one deciphers their actual thinking and behaviour, one cannot help being struck by the sheer foolishness of these highly regarded dons.
Not so with An Oxford Tragedy. For one thing, it is written from inside, by the Senior Tutor and Vice President, a more or less contented man who has clearly not made much of a mark, academically speaking. It is notable that Masterman was an Oxford don when he wrote the novel whereas Innes (or J. I. M. Stewart, to give him his real name) was an academic in various universities, not returning to Oxford till 1949. His convoluted farcical situation was produced from outside and his detective, Inspector Appleby, is also an outsider though he had studied in one of the colleges. Masterman, on the other hand, sees the tragedy that might be inherent in the somewhat closed life led by dons in a college.
Masterman's narrator is an insider but his detective is far more of an outsider than Appleby is: Dr Ernst Brendel, a Viennese lawyer and criminologist, who sometimes acts as an amateur detective. He speaks English very well but many of his attitudes and approaches are hopeless Continental, which is what enables him to solve the slightly ridiculous puzzle very quickly. Left to themselves, one feels the dons and the police would have gone on floundering.
It is in the two endings that the books differ most considerably. The crime has been solved, despite the various obstructions, the murderer has duly committed suicide and the colleges try to pick up the pieces. St Anthony's, Michael Innes's college, will do so without the slightest difficulty and, indeed, we are due to meet one of the characters, Gott, clearly a rather amusing self-portrait, in the second novel, Hamlet, Revenge. Masterman's picture of a devastated college and tragically displaced lives is far more affecting - not really a farce, at all.
They are both academic books, to be read, savoured and cherished.