Val McDermid is the award-winning author of numerous crime novels, including a series of books starring her most famous creation, clinical psychologist Dr Tony Hill. She read English at St Hilda’s College, Oxford – at 17, one of the youngest undergraduates the college had ever taken, and the first from a Scottish state school. Her latest novel, Trick of the Dark, is set in Oxford, and is published by Little, Brown.
“I spent three years at St Hilda’s College, Oxford. I took a degree in English, but more valuable was what I learned outside tutorials. And finally, with Trick of the Dark, I’ve managed to write about it. Oxford exerts a strong influence on those it touches, whether they love it or hate it, whether they embrace it or resist it, whether they admit it or deny it. I didn’t know much about it when I arrived, but thanks in large part to the dozens of books written about it, I know a lot more now.”
1. Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
I was instantly seduced by Waugh’s portrait of the collision between a decent middle-class chap and a dysfunctional bunch of Catholic toffs. Although superficially I had nothing in common with his characters apart from studying at Oxford, I couldn’t avoid all sorts of emotional identification with them. This is the quintessential novel of Oxford gilded youth flying too close to the sun.
2. The Way Through the Woods by Colin Dexter
Impossible to avoid Inspector Morse, whose TV adventures have amplified the city’s tourist magnetism. I’ve chosen this one because it features crucially one of my favourite Oxford streets, Park Town. I remember particularly the day Richard Nixon resigned. I had spent the afternoon reading in a hammock in a garden in Park Town, eating figs and drinking Italian wine, then went indoors as the sun went down to turn on the TV and watch history being made.
3. The Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispin
A classic crime novel that brings a streak of surrealism to the genre. Featuring the anarchic English literature don Gervase Fen, the mystery gets under way when a visiting poet finds a dead body in a toyshop in the middle of the night. By morning, it’s been transformed into a grocery store. Written with wit and brio, this is a clever, energetic romp that still entertains.
4. An Instance of the Fingerpost by Ian Pears
Set just after the Restoration, when conspiracies were rife, this epistolary novel features a quartet of unreliable narrators giving their versions of the same series of events. Cleverly constructed and completely fascinating, it’s loosely based on historical happenings and is crammed with fascinating period detail. It’s as much a novel of ideas as it is of character, but none the less compelling for that.
5. Zuleika Dobson by Max Beerbohm
A mad fantasy, subtitled “An Oxford love story”, this is a satire on the sheltered world of Oxford colleges a century ago. Zuleika, granddaughter of the warden of Judas College, is a conjuror whose charms bewitch all the men who come into contact with her. Rejection drives them to mass suicide and Zuleika sets her sights on Cambridge. Beerbohm’s a class act whose wit makes this still worth a read.
6. To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis
A science-fiction fantasy dressed in the vestments of a Victorian novel, complete with epigraphs, chapter outlines and sidelong nods to Dorothy L Sayers, Conan Doyle, Jerome K Jerome and Wilkie Collins. There’s time travel; a McGuffin (the bishop’s bird stump); a Gothic villainess (Lady Schrapnell); and enough fun and games to fill a rainy weekend.
7. Lyra’s Oxford by Philip Pullman
Strictly speaking, a short story, but an irresistible add-on to the His Dark Materials trilogy. It takes place two years after the trilogy, in the alternate Oxford introduced in Northern Lights. The story itself is intriguing but slight; its main interest comes from the extras that accompany it – a map of Lyra’s Oxford, adverts and tourist information from her universe. An amusing divertissement, but still, you should read the trilogy …
8. Dirty Tricks by Michael Dibdin
No one has ever cast a colder eye on respectablility than Michael Dibdin. Here, a north Oxford couple’s perfect life is shattered when a dinner guest seduces the wife in her own kitchen. This triggers a series of escalating events that strip bare the superficiality of their lives and end in ruthless murder. Weaving a terrifying thread of sex and violence, this is a brilliant and satisfying thriller.
9. The Lessons by Naomi Alderman
A recent addition to the canon of Oxford fiction, Alderman’s second novel gives a tip of the hat to Brideshead, featuring its own version of a more contemporary gilded youth and an updated take on the grip of the church and its consequences. Alderman is a gifted, witty writer and The Lessons is a sharp, insightful overview of a journey that starts out hopeful and ends horrible.
10. Gaudy Night by Dorothy L Sayers
I am no lover of Sayers – I find her style overblown, her snobbishness irritating and Lord Peter Wimsey infuriating – but no list of Oxford fiction would be complete without Gaudy Night. So I will cheat and quote my fellow crime writer Andrew Taylor: “She tried to use a detective story both as a vehicle for serious themes — the value of scholarship, and the price it exacts — and as a novel of character and manners with an attendant love story. It is a book that has given some of its readers their first glimpse of the intellectual excitement a university can offer.”
Full article and photo: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/sep/24/val-mcdermid-top-10-oxford-novels