It’s intriguing that such an apparently civilised place as Oxford should have formed the backdrop to so many murder stories, on the page, and on the screen. I’ve much enjoyed working on a new essay about the city’s murderous heritage. Of course, Colin Dexter is the leading writer of Oxford crime, but there have been many others.
The reason for Oxford’s long-term popularity as a setting for crime fiction s is surely not so much the inherently criminal tendencies of the local population as the enthusiasm of alumni of the University, and others associated with it, and with the city, for writing detective stories. For instance, more than thirty old members of Balliol College alone have published crime fiction.
J.C. Masterman, who later became a notable war-time spymaster, and then Provost of Worcester College, is credited with inaugurating the Oxford whodunit set in academe, in 1933, with An Oxford Tragedy. Soon, there was a flurry of books to delight dons and many others. Michael Innes, who again would become a don, introduced his series policeman John Appleby in Death at the President’s Lodging, set in a fictional university strongly reminiscent of Oxford, and Operation Pax sets key scenes in the Bodleian. Innes’ principal disciple was Edmund Crispin (the pen-name adopted by Bruce Montgomery, whose first detective novel was written while he was still an undergraduate.)
Surely the most famous crime novel set in Oxford appeared just four years after An Oxford Tragedy. Dorothy L. Sayers’ Gaudy Night,, in which Somerville College (where Sayers read English) is fictionalised as Shrewsbury College, which she locates in Jowett Walk, on Balliol's cricket ground. Ian Morson’s historical Falconer series is set in medieval Oxford, while Veronica Stallwood has written eleven books to date featuring historical novelist Kate Ivory. The late Michael Dibdin wrote a witty stand-alone set in the city, Dirty Tricks – and fascination with the city is not confined to English authors. And even a novelist from Argentina, Guillermo Martinez, got in on the act. He wrote The Oxford Murders, the film of which I covered in a blog post a while back.