Written by Simon Mason

A Killing in November is set in Oxford.  This is not the most original move.  But it’s convenient because I live here and know it better than any other place, with the possible exception of Sheffield, where I grew up.  It’s also a dramatically weird place which seems like a suitable setting for a story because, with its university colleges and their ongoing medieval rituals (every hundred years the gowned dons of All Souls parade around the quadrangle with a duck on a pole singing the Mallard Song), it’s already half fictional itself.  Stories arise naturally out of it.

A Killing in November arose out of a story told to me by a friend who had been, for a time, a handyman at one of the most prestigious Oxford colleges.  He was having a drink one evening in a pub, when he was  approached by a photographer with an unusual proposal.  The photographer worked for one of the ‘lads mags’ then very popular, and he mainly photographed undressed women.  The magazine ran a regular feature: a glamour model posing in an exciting state of undress in the very last setting you would expect to find her.  Previous features had included the House of Lords and the reading room of the British Library.  The magazine was keen to use the library, chapel and, if possible, provost’s study, of an Oxford college.  All he needed was someone to let him and his model in.  I couldn’t possibly say how my friend responded, though I will say that he had a wicked sense of fun.

The colleges are of course bastions of privilege and power, not just in terms of wealth but – more importantly, in terms of knowledge and influence.  They are plugged into worlds of power, and their reach is international.  Naturally they play this down.  Discretion is a venerable Oxford tradition, so too refinement and good manners; it is rare for a college to have anything so crude as a sign with its name on outside its gates.  Oxford in general contains a high proportion of powerfully placed people operating quietly away from the glare of publicity.  Only the other day I heard that the place to hear news before the rest of the world does is on the touchline of the soccer pitches of the elite Dragon School, where the other mums and dads are likely to be number one in the foreign office or a minister at the Treasury, and often in the mood to chat.

As is well known, Oxford also contains areas of real deprivation, the estates of Blackbird Leys, Rose Hill and Barton, for instance.  The number of homeless people is high.  This too is a long-standing Oxford tradition, not just the town and gown divide, but the extreme contrast in material wealth between, say the hedge fund manager in his mansion nestled in an acre of woodland up at Boars Hill and the single mother of four in her maisonette above the Rose Hill shops.  Oxford is the poster child for inequality.

I wondered what sort of crime novel would suit these circumstances, and that’s when Ryan came into my mind.  Ryan grew up in a trailer park (rich Oxford also has its share of these), the son of a violent alcoholic.  He dropped out of school at the earliest opportunity and ran wild with his girlfriend, who died young of an overdose, leaving Ryan with a child, Ryan Junior.  You can see Ryan hanging around town in his trackie bottoms and Loop jacket and plaid baseball cap, the epitome of the chav.  And you would naturally expect him to be a member of the criminal classes.  But you would be wrong.  He is one of the youngest detective inspectors on the Thames Valley Force, and passed out top of his class in his training programme.  This has done nothing to change his behaviour, however, which remains crude, coarse and not infrequently offensive.  He has a chip on his shoulder.  Posh people in particular get his back up.

So I wondered what might happen if his first case involved the famously pompous Provost of Barnabas Hall.  And for good measure, I thought I’d give Ryan an unlikely partner, the suave and sophisticated Ray, London-Nigerian graduate of Balliol College and boxing blue of the university.  You wouldn’t think they’d get on.

They don’t.


riverrun, Hbk £14.99 January 20, 2022

Simon Mason

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