Friday 21 August 2020

Forgotten Book - The Case of the Four Friends

J. C. Masterman was a man of many parts. An eminent figure who rose to become Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University, Sir John Cecil Masterman was an academic and also a key figure in British espionage during the war, overseeing the organisation of double agents. As if that wasn't enough, he wrote a notable detective novel, An Oxford Tragedy; it wasn't the very first Oxford-based crime story, but its success set the ball rolling and of course it has had innumerable successors.

It was on the strength of that book, above all, that he was elected to membership of the Detection Club. Many moons ago, I wrote a short article about Masterman for CADS, which was later adapted for the website Tangled Web UK, in its hey-day the go-to place on the internet for information about crime fiction. I'm sorry to see that the site has now vanished, but Geoff Lees and his family did a great service for many writers, publicising their books on the site over many years. Thank goodness CADS is still going strong.

The novel featured a Viennese professor, Ernest Brendel, and after the war, no doubt much encouraged by his admirers, Masterman revived Brendel, and brought him back to Oxford for another detective story. This was The Case of the Four Friends, published in 1957, almost a quarter of a century after its predecessor.

The story has a very clever premise, a sort of refined version of the "whowasdunin". Brendel tells a story about four people ("friends" is stretching it a bit) which is an exercise in pre-detection: can he prevent a murder from taking place? And the reader has to figure out both the prospective murderer and the prospective victim.

Unfortunately, the story is lacking in action and there's no attempt to make use of the Oxford setting - the story might have been recounted anywhere. I think the idea could have been livened up, and it's a pity Masterman didn't do this. Instead, we get a rather dry, cerebral tale. But for its inherent ingenuity, if not its execution, it earns high marks


Clothes in Books said...

I read this a while back, and really wanted to like it, but it went on and on and didn't really live up to itself... glad I read it though.

Martin Edwards said...

Yes, I felt much the same. Interesting but ultimately disappointing. Perhaps this explains why he didn't return again to the crime novel.