by Colin Dexter
320 pages, Pan
Review by Pat Black
We take another stroll through Oxford’s dreaming spires and foaming dives with our most curmudgeonly detective, Inspector Morse. The Dead of Jericho places Morse in the early 1980s, at some remove from the raging sexism of the mid-70s, but not that much.
It’s got a spooky beginning. We meet a nameless man at a party, casting his predatory eye over a slew of ladies with a view of taking one of them – any of them – to bed. He focuses on one particular lady, and they get on well, but his intentions don’t quite seem honourable.
It’s only after a reference to drinking cask ales the whole day long and being “over-beered” as the party draws to a close that we realise this man is not a potential murderer, but Morse.
The inspector continues to behave in a shadowy fashion. He drifts through the early part of the narrative dealing with the death of the lady we meet at the party much like Sherlock Holmes’ silhouette haunts the moors in The Hound of the Baskervilles. He does eyebrow-raising, if not jaw-dropping things – like wandering into the house of the woman at the party uninvited when he tries her unlocked door, driven by a compulsion we’d rather not consider in too much detail. He is probably the last person to cross Anne Scott’s threshold before she is found hanging in her room. This could be a tad problematic for Morse.
You don’t quite feel at ease with the great detective. His hands always seem a little grubby.
Our cryptic clue: one across, Father Green, missing some Endeavour? (7)
Morse isn’t the cause of this tragedy, but he is firmly locked in its orbit. It takes all of his celebrated skills to unravel the mystery of Anne Scott’s death, especially when her neighbour, handyman and full-time stalker also turns up dead.
This my second dip into Morse’s world after his debut, and again I was struck by the contrast between the academic Mecca he lives in and whose cerebral matters he thrives upon, and the relatively low circumstances and sordid expirations he investigates. There’s a lot in the mix, as usual, with a blackmail plot, some voyeurism, petty neighbourhood gripes contained within a bridge school unguent with spitting cobras and of course, Morse’s permanently thwarted priapic quests. In considering a crime scene, Morse notices a pile of pornographic magazines, and idly flicks through them with the bulging-eyed wonder of a plooky teen.
Morse is a wonderful curmudgeon, both in Dexter’s source material and in the TV series starring John Thaw, which fixed him permanently in the public consciousness. But in the TV show he was a frustrated romantic, whereas here he’s a seedy wanker. Sergeant Lewis, stolid, loyal and long-suffering as a mistreated donkey, is on hand to counter Morse’s irascible tendencies and to help him escape the confines of his own raging ego to see the flaws in his lines of inquiry.
One saving grace is that Dexter is keen to point out Morse’s flaws. The great detective makes mistakes, and falls for the red herrings as readily as the reader. Another plus point for the book is its brevity – a couple of hundred pages and out (or 300-odd, depending on which edition you have), with barely a breath in between chapters.
The front cover of my omnibus is of a piece with the TV show, bearing the bonnet of Morse’s burgundy Jaguar. The original paperbacks, if you check them out online, betray its less noble lineage - slim volumes with slightly seedy covers befitting its insalubrious subject matter. Morse is a fascinating character, and one I enjoy returning to, with all his perverse complexity.