John Cecil Masterman : biography
Sir John Cecil Masterman (12 January 1891 – 6 June 1977) was a noted academic, sportsman and author. However, he was best known as chairman of the Twenty Committee, which during World War II ran the Double Cross System, the scheme that controlled double agents in Britain.
Two Oxford mysteries
An Oxford Tragedy
In 1933, he wrote a murder mystery novel entitled An Oxford Tragedy, set in the fictional Oxford college of St. Thomas's. It was written in the point of view of Oxford don named Francis Wheatley Winn, who was Senior Tutor at St. Thomas'. He served as Watson to the novel's Sherlock Holmes, an amateur sleuth named Ernst Brendel, a Viennese lawyer "of European reputation".
He was giving a series of lectures to the Law Faculty, as he had a good reputation as a detective with the quality of "a man to whom secrets will be confided". When an unpopular tutor was found shot in the Dean's rooms, he took it upon himself to solve the crime. He of course solved the case, and the murderer thus exposed committed suicide.
The novel itself was quite unusual for its time in providing an account of how murder affects the tranquil existence of Oxford dons. While it was a variation of the old theme of evil deeds done in a tranquil setting, it did establish the tradition of Oxford-based crime fiction, notably in the works of Michael Innes and Edmund Crispin.
The Case of the Four Friends
Considering the acclaim that An Oxford Tragedy had garnered, Masterman did not publish a follow-up until 1957. The novel, again starring Ernst Brendel, was called The Case of the Four Friends, which is "a diversion in pre-detection".
In the novel, Brendel is persuaded by a group of friends to relate a story of how he "pre-constructed" a crime, rather than reconstructing it as in the conventional manner. As he says, "To work out the crime before it is committed, to foresee how it will be arranged, and then to prevent it! That's a triumph indeed, and is worth more than all the convictions in the world".
His tale then was about four men, each of them either a potential victim or potential murderer. The pacing of the story is quite slow and the narrative is interrupted from time to time by discussion between Brendel and his listeners. Even so, the novel maintains its interest on the reader throughout, partly because of the originality of its approach.
This novel was the last of his crime stories and he wrote no more works of fiction. However, his best known work was still to come, and it would involve his wartime experiences as part of the Twenty Committee.
Masterman was educated at the Royal Naval Colleges of Osborne and Dartmouth, at Worcester College, Oxford, where he read modern history. He studied at the University of Freiburg where he also was an exchange lecturer in 1914, at the outbreak of World War I. As a result, he was interned as an enemy alien for four years in a detention camp in Ruhleben. During his internment, Masterman took the opportunity to further polish his German.
After his return from captivity, Masterman became tutor of Modern History in Christ Church, Oxford, where he was also censor (1920–26). In the 1920s he became a noted player of cricket, tennis and field hockey, participating in international competitions, and in 1931 he toured Canada with the Marylebone Cricket Club; he was acknowledged as a master gamesman in Stephen Potter's book Gamesmanship.
After World War II he returned to Oxford, becoming Provost of Worcester College (1946–61) and Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University during 1957 and 1958. Masterman was knighted for his services in 1959.
Published works by J.C. Masterman
- An Oxford Tragedy, 1933 (mystery)
- Fate Cannot Harm Me, 1935
- Marshal Ney: A Play in Five Acts, 1937
- To Teach the Senators Wisdom, or, An Oxford Guide-Book, 1952
- The Case of the Four Friends, 1957
- Bits and Pieces, 1961
- The Double Cross System in the War of 1939 to 1945, Yale, 1972 (printed privately in 1945)
- On the Chariot Wheel: An Autobiography, Oxford, 1975.
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