October 27, 2010


by Colin Dexter
320 pages, Pan Books

Inspector Morose by Pat Black

Sorry. Some puns are too powerful to resist.

Anyway, here we are, the very first Inspector Morse novel. Thames Valley Police's finest is famous in the United Kingdom and elsewhere thanks to his portrayal on the small screen by the late John Thaw. His Morse is a grumpy bugger, fond of a pint in the pubs of Oxford both on- and off-duty. He is unlucky and indeed tragic in love, brilliant at crossword puzzles and, like all the best detectives, he has a Watson - the long-suffering but beautifully-mannered Sergeant Lewis, played by the puppyish Kevin Whately.

It can be dangerous going to a literary source when your view of a character is so well-informed by movies or TV dramas. So how does Morse fare on the page?

First and foremost, Last Bus To Woodstock is a fine mystery story. The key test for any detective fiction is: did you guess who did it? While I must admit to a blind spot when it comes to red herrings, I didn't suspect the killer's identity and the full picture was not clear to me until the final piece was put in place. So, on that score, Morse fulfils my patchy criterion.

His first case is surprisingly grubby, though. It concerns the rape and murder of a young woman whose body is found in a pub car park. We know from the very first chapter that the victim and another girl were picked up by a man in his car and driven to the pub, where poor Sylvia Kaye meets her fate. From here, through a mixture of simple logic, massive leaps of deductive reasoning and intuition, Morse untangles a web of infidelities and lusts trailing throughout Oxford, linking barmaids, university dons, office workers and seedy pornography-dealing newsagents.

We gain an insight into Morse's inner workings, which of course we don't get from the television. The fictional Morse is just as irascible as John Thaw's portrayal. He is contemptuous of those who don't share his peculiar drive and genius, and Lewis silently bears the brunt of some of his worst tirades. But for all this intellectual fastidiousness, his method comes across as somewhat haphazard. In the case of Sylvia Kaye, it seems driven more by a book on lateral thinking Morse had been reading rather than tried-and-tested, laborious, logical coppering.

In his drinking habits, Morse skirts uncomfortably close to the cliché of the Cop on the Edge. Barely an afternoon goes by without the detective repairing to the pub to take in some cask ales, and he's often found wandering around the station half-cut in the middle of the day. Booze acts as a fuel for Morse's brain, a trigger for his better judgements, whereas for most of us mortals it's a fog - and worse. There's no sense of the drinking as Problem Drinking either - Morse is far too English and cerebral for such trappings, and even if it seems alarming to modern readers to have a lawman staggering around drunk while murderers are on the loose, we must remember that this story was written in the mid-1970s when such things were more acceptable, if not a given.

Addicted to crosswords, Morse is a prize pedant and pedagogue - he'd get on a treat at some online writing communities I can call to mind. He is led to the first major clue in the story after becoming irked by an anonymous, error-strewn typewritten message sent to a girl working at an office. He enjoys putting the needle on some Wagner, too - another characteristic which would recur over the course of the series. At a low point in the investigation, Morse is invigorated and inspired by his musical idol to return to the fray. And then there’s that other keynote Morse trait, his dreadful luck with women and his doom to be forever single.

Morse's acquaintance - and it is really no more than that - with a leggy nurse at least 20 years his junior put me in mind of James Bond's torrid affair with Vesper Lynd in another series opener, Ian Fleming's Casino Royale. Morse's heart seems at odds with his natural taciturnity, leaping like a salmon when the naughty nurse agrees to accompany him to a dinner dance, only to be chomped by a waiting brown bear when she lets him know she's already engaged. Throughout this encounter, Morse meets the girl a total of five times, maximum, and only succeeds in kissing her once. And yet, before we know it, he's declaiming poetry, shedding tears and even professing love. In the blink of an eye, the master detective has become an over-wrought teenager. It's pathetic.

I guess it's important to understand before you approach this novel that it was written 35 years ago. I'm sure people weren't all rampant sexists and romantic fools back in the day, but it's fair to say that some things have changed in the intervening years. Maybe things did happen just like that back then - who knows? Even in the absence of DNA testing (which could probably have solved this crime with the minimum of fuss), mobile phones or computers, Dexter skilfully avoids anachronisms in the story. But the book's portrayal of women - even when they have lowest common denominator status as love interests for more powerful and influential men - may be almost too much to bear for the majority of modern readers.

From the very first, when poor Sylvia's less-than-perfect diction is victimised by the author, young women are either cast as stupid or as out-of-their-depth victims. One line of inquiry regarding the curious manner in which a woman runs a few yards is dismissed by Morse because "every bloody woman runs in that splay-footed style these days". The typists at the office where Morse focuses his early inquiries come across as ghastly, braying mares with scarcely an ounce of common sense to their credit. There's one notable exception - Jennifer Coleby, a clever bird who keeps her secrets well and leads the police on a merry dance. To Morse, and to us, she is Nemesis - how sad that someone so sharp should simply be seen as devious and shrewish rather than a match for the policemen on her case.

Perhaps the worst moment comes when a barmaid overhears a conversation among Oxford dons in the pub where the murder took place, exploring the suggestion that a young woman can't really be raped. You could argue that Dexter meant to highlight prejudiced, sexist behaviour among hoary old goats in the British establishment, but you wouldn't convince me. Although we still find some people willing to argue that what a woman chooses to wear is an incitement to rape, we surely wouldn't find a statement like the one uttered above even from the worst knuckle-draggers around today.

To Sgt Lewis, then, and possibly the biggest double-take moment in comparing book to screen: apparently, he is "by several years Morse's senior", in stark contrast to the TV show where Lewis is considerably younger. That said, much like Morse's irascibility was beautifully captured by John Thaw, Lewis' gentle stoicism was well served by Kevin Whately. The sergeant's family man is a fine counterpoint to the somewhat erratic Morse, more human and benevolent (though never soft - "Lewis was nobody's fool," as Dexter spells out).

The book does commit one of the three big genre sins of narrative. One of these usually takes place in horror: "Was it really a ghost... or was I just a bit mad?" The other can be found in sci-fi: "We encountered the aliens, we didn't get on with them, but... it turned out WE were the idiots all along!" The last can be found in detective fiction, and Morse is guilty of it here.

It's The Keyser Sozee Bombshell: where the detective has a "eureka!" moment when he's engaged in some activity totally unrelated to the case. For instance, let's say the detective is having a cup of tea and a Jammy Dodger. He eats the Jammy Dodger. He considers the Jammy Dodger. And something clicks into place. "Dodgers... Dodgers... tax dodgers... By god, I've got it! I'm a genius! We're looking for a tax dodger!" You'll know this moment when it arrives, and perhaps, like me, you will sag when you read it. Mr Dexter, you stabbed my soul with that one.

But before we get too serious or too negative, there can be no faulting the storytelling, the layering-in of suspects, the blind alleys or the revelations in this superbly constructed and well-executed story. I enjoyed my first shot at the Inspector and I'll be taking a few more. And Morse's clash of cultures - on the one hand, a beer-swilling, fish and chips-eating boor; on the other a well-educated, intuitive genius with a passion for opera and the classics - makes him a very compelling character. Perhaps the fairest thing would be to now read The Remorseful Day (I told you some puns are too powerful to resist), Morse's final adventure from 1999, and to make a proper comparison between the old and the new.

It needs a lick of paint, some new tyres and maybe a changeover of drivers, but the Last Bus To Woodstock is still well worth taking and a fine introduction to an enduring character.

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