Thoughts on the detective story

Posted by Helen Tuesday, April 17, 2012 ,

J. C. Masterman's claims to fame are various. He was an academic and a noted amateur sportsman; he was also the chairman of the Twenty Committee during the Second World War, in charge of double cross and turning of enemy agents. Typically of the sort of people who ran intelligence and counter-intelligence, mostly very successfully, the name Twenty Committee came from the Roman double cross: XX.
After the war Masterman, sensibly, thought that the world should know about the committee's achievements but came up against the British official obsession with secrecy: both Roger Hollis, head of MI5 and Alec Douglas-Home, Prime Minister, opposed publication. In 1945 The Double Cross System in the War of 1939 - 1945 was published privately and in 1970 in the United States by Yale University Press. For a time there was talk of legal action against the author but eventually common sense prevailed and the book came out in Britain in 1972. Even then nothing was said about Britain's most successful "weapon", ULTRA, information about which was not made public till 1974.

There is still one more achievement that Masterman could boast of. He was a writer of detective stories (and other fiction). In particular, he wrote the first of the Oxford college mysteries that subsequently became important with, among others, Michael Innes, Edmund Crispin and Dorothy L. Sayers. This was An Oxford Tragedy, published in 1933, in which the strange goings on at St Thomas's College are solved by a visiting Austrian criminologist, Ernst Brendel.

Masterman did not write another detective story for more than twenty years, The Case of the Four Friends coming out in 1956. Again Brendel is the hero, though this time he is also the narrator. There are some indications that in the intervening years he had gone through some highly unpleasant experiences but not much is made of that. Brendel tells the story of four people who can be called friends but are not exactly who arrive at a hotel to celebrate new year and to play golf. Each of them is a potential murderer and a potential victim and the story is one of pre-detection with Brendel claiming to have prevented (possibly) all four murders though as one of his Oxford friends says subsequently, there could have been another solution as well.

At the end of the novel there is an Introduction. As these are always written after the rest of the book, explains the author, it is reasonable that this one should be put in its rightful place. In it the author finds himself in court prosecuting himself for not writing a proper detective story and also defending himself. It is the defence that is particularly interesting:
My only difficulty is that I want to repudiate all the accusations at the same time. That doesn't matter; I am in the middle of my speech without any realization of how I began. 
'You say that the story should be told directly, but that, I assure you, would not add any sense of actuality. I have never seen a murdered corpse, and I could not describe one in a manner which would make a reader believe that I had. On the other hand, I have often enough sat late in Common Room discussion crimes, and have advanced theories about disputed cases in courts of law. To me, then, the conversations in Common Room are much more real than any direct story would be. 
And I would go further. A detailed realism is no necessary part of a detective story, for the detective story, for the detective story follows highly artificial but well-established conventions. How often is a cursory and unnecessary concession made to the belief that the story should be made realistic without any influence on the reader's mind at all! Usually at the sight of the corpse one of the characters vomits, or alternatively another remarks, "I did not know there could be so much blood in a human body." But that is all, and the reader hurries on to the rest of the story without pausing to let the horrid spectacle of the corpse sink into his mind. 
Reality has little to do with detective fiction. At most there is only a sort of pseudo-realism. 
Julian Symons: eat your heart out.


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