Morse bows out…

9:23 AM 25 AUGUST 2017

The final book (13/13), in the series of crime novels featuring Chief Inspector Morse and a bravura performance from the great detective (and his creator), on which to bring down the curtain. For all his foibles and personality flaws, the irascible Morse stands tall among the pantheon of fictional sleuths and in spite of deteriorating health, he remains the best that Thames Valley CID can put in the field. And, in this tale, a particular focus is shone on the respective relationships between Morse, DS Lewis and Chief Superintendent Strange, which only adds to the feeling of a finale.


The unsolved murder of nurse, Yvonne Harrison, the previous year is a source of bitter regret for Strange and with his retirement looming, he would dearly like to leave a clean slate. However, notwithstanding the determined coercion of his superior officer, Morse is reluctant to take the case, to the point of outright insubordination. Lewis, suspecting that Morse perhaps had an historic entanglement with the victim, gets the re-opened investigation underway, but finds Morse popping up ‘unofficially’, usually ahead of his own inquiries.


Between the family members (husband, daughter, son), a series of lovers and the closed ranks of the local village, the list of suspects is lengthy. However, it is gratifying to see Lewis, unaccustomed to leading proceedings, take up the mantle, as the continued deterioration in Morse’s health hampers his involvement.


Reflections from each of the policemen are also poignant. For example, Lewis observes that “his own service in the CID had been enriched immeasurably because of his close association, over so many years now, with his curmudgeonly, miserly, oddly vulnerable chief”. In his turn, Morse takes to writing down his latest thoughts on the case, almost as a premonition or at least an insurance against his unpredictable health concerns. In the event, the case is chased to an elaborate conclusion, with the author twisting and turning to the last, but the loss of Morse, by comparison, overshadows a rather mundane and tawdry outcome.


For a brief moment, even Lewis has cause to consider the ethics of his hero’s apparent actions, but happily Morse’s reputation for authentic leadership emerges untainted. Moreover, it may speak volumes that as a reader, I also mourn his passing. Still, while television indulges in imagined sequels and prequels, the series of books crafted by Colin Dexter remains the undisputed origin of a truly exceptional literary character. May they both rest in peace.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Colin Dexter still at his peak!

12:13 PM 18 AUGUST 2017

Book 12/13 and the penultimate novel in the series of murder mysteries confronted by Chief Inspector Morse of Thames Valley Police. And after the sombre tone of “The Daughters of Cain”, a more emollient and less emburdened Morse takes to the fray, centred on the race to succeed Sir Clixby Bream, retiring Master of Lonsdale College, Oxford.


There is something immediately intriguing about peering behind the dense curtain surrounding such elites and for the reader it is unsurprising to learn that superficial impressions will prove as important as academic substance. Indeed, for the only two candidates (Julian Storrs and Denis Cornford) the stakes could scarcely be higher, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for elevation and preferment expected to culminate in a knighthood. But, for such a prize, ambition and even ruthlessness may be required, to burnish reputations, curry favour with the electorate and suppress unhelpful information.
Both contenders also have the dedicated support of a wife, but a crude ‘SWOT’ analysis might conclude that the ‘strengths’ and ‘opportunities’ conferred by their respective partners are at least balanced by the attendant ‘weaknesses’ and ‘threats’. Certainly the vulnerability to be exploited from past mistakes/experiences looms large in this tale, extending even to Morse. However, notwithstanding the opprobrium directed at ‘blackmailers’, as abusers of power, there is also a dearth of sympathy for the disempowered ‘victim’, or the manipulated.


What endears Morse to the reader is his candid, but paradoxical unwillingness to defer to authority figures and yet clinging to his own superior status. Only DS Lewis, intermittently coveted as a friend, is thus protected, in spite of outbursts of insubordination and frank observations, intolerable from any other quarter. In this book, Morse also continues to experience deteriorating health and the two detectives are inexorably drawn closer together and in the ultimate, touching confirmation of Lewis’ favoured status, the enigmatic Morse shares his Christian name (via correspondence, of course).


Along the way there is the customary flawed hypothesizing, analysis, building and rejigging of the facts, before the final puzzle is expertly revealed. My favourite analogy of Morse’s thought process was of a train passing through a station, too fast to read the nameplate, but as the carriage slows the location may hove into view.
Again, Dexter has deftly juxtaposed the traditional façade of high academic establishment with base human behaviour. That the privileged miscreant can be humbled before the law is reassuring, even satisfying. Still, even Morse has limitations to his moral authority and contemptible characters slip through the net, but at least he makes a positive difference.


Notwithstanding the CWA daggers liberally awarded throughout this series of books, I think this may yet be my most enjoyable read. Perhaps, not the most complex or devious puzzle, but more for the development of the main characters and the masterful set up for the final book. Bring it on!

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Hell hath no fury….

1:08 PM 30 JULY 2017

Book 11/13 of the crime novels involving Chief Inspector Morse and as the great detective contemplates retirement with his boss (Superintendent Strange), we are faced with the prospect of an illustrious career running into the buffers. Certainly this investigation, which starts with the murder of Dr Felix McClure, has a familiar level of complexity, but it also seems to lack the dynamism of earlier challenges. The case passes belatedly to Morse and Lewis, when the wife of the incumbent detective, Inspector Phillotson, falls ill. Typically cynical, an underwhelmed Morse wonders whether the withdrawal of his colleague has more to do with Phillotson’s competence than the health of his partner. Still, the subsequent death of Mrs Phillotson pricks Morse’s conscience and perhaps connecting with a sense of his own mortality, he discreetly contacts the bereaved in an unusual demonstration of empathy. Indeed, the book is tinged with a sombre tone throughout, as Morse simultaneously navigates the murder inquiry and his own dip in health, even provoking unlikely, though short-lived, attempts to curtail smoking and drinking!

As always, the loyal and diligent DS Lewis anchors Morse in mundane reality.

“Lewis said nothing. He knew well where his duties lay in circumstances such as these: to do the donkey-work; to look through everything, without much purpose, and often without much hope.” 

Yet, when Morse shares his intention to retire the following autumn, the sadness experienced by Lewis is magnified by an impending sense of loss and the realization that a dimming of his brightest days must also follow. Lewis is conscious that his function is largely a supporting role, to undertake the ‘heavy lifting’ that enables the divaesque Morse to give vent to his exceptional powers of deduction, but Lewis is also a dedicated cheerleader and his undoubted optimism in his hero’s capacity is endearing.

Given Morse’s lustful tendencies towards the fairer sex, it is perhaps poignant that this latest case should centre on three female suspects. Amid the bewildering convergence of murder, drugs, prostitution and theft, Lewis echoes the thoughts of the reader when he observes, “Morse nearly always got things hopelessly, ridiculously wrong at the start of every case”, but we can also share Lewis’s expectation that the ability of Morse to unlock the presenting puzzle, will culminate in the similarly predictable resolution.

I have commented previously on the implausibility of Morse’s dalliance with beautiful protagonists (sometimes suspects) and again in this book his Achilles heel is exposed. Still, as the character ages and becomes more physically frail, there is something mildly pathetic and sad, as Morse succumbs to his own vulnerability, as well as dicing with that of another bruised soul. However, there is something intriguing about flawed genius and this book is as absorbing as those which have gone before, but perhaps I share a touch of Lewis’s foreboding and disappointment at the inexorable dimming of such brilliance. Just two book left in the series…

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Morse goes temporarily missing…

3:55 PM 15 JULY 2017

Book 10/13 of the crime novels involving Chief Inspector Morse and I think on balance this is my favourite so far. Clearly, the fact that it won Colin Dexter the CWA Gold Dagger (again) in 1992, for the best crime novel of that year confers a gilt-edged pedigree, but within such an impressive series of high quality works of fiction (one might even call them ‘bodies of work’), this example stands tall.

On a rather random whim, Morse decides to take a holiday and notwithstanding his negative past experiences of such ventures, he books into The Bay Hotel, Lyme Regis, Dorset. The absence allows time for Morse to ponder a riddle spotted in ‘The Times’, apparently concerning the year-long police investigation into a ‘Swedish maiden’, missing in Oxford and follow the subsequent responses of editors and readers in the correspondence columns. At home, when the media starts asking questions, the absence of his star detective also confirms Superintendent Strange’s determination to place Morse in charge of the stalled investigation upon his return, even tasking DS Lewis with trying to entice Morse back early. And thus, amid such expectations the detective duo are back in harness.

In common with the other books in the series, Morse manages to lust over and make lasting impressions upon several interesting female characters. But, we also get to see more of the ‘below-the-waterline’ complexity of Morse in his self-imposed emotional isolation. This is particularly true when Morse hurries to see his colleague Max, in the hospital, but also in the unaccustomed warmth, which DS Lewis alone seems to rekindle. Indeed, once again it is Lewis who is the “catalytic factor in the curious chemistry of Morse’s mind.”

This book also introduces pathologist, Dr Laura Robson, for the first time. A feisty Geordie, the fair Laura quickly takes to verbal duelling with Morse, but the instant respect she has commanded also bodes well for how her relationship with the Chief Inspector (arch sceptic of the forensic sciences) will play out in the remaining volumes.

One of the interesting traits of Dexter’s work is the genteel veneer through which he filters the attendant brutality of violent crime. Morse rarely casts judgement, simply assembles the facts and dispassionately solves the presenting puzzle. In fact, what I regard as the ‘Oxford effect’, often gentrifies quite sordid circumstances and occasionally leaves Morse and his unrefined proclivities seeming quite tawdry by comparison. Still, in this novel, Morse seems more relaxed (perhaps an expression of holiday fever, or the reminder of his own mortality) and openly closer to Lewis. For example, Morse even entrusts his sergeant to interview the missing girl’s mother, dispatching Lewis to Stockholm. Albeit such delegation pragmatically side-stepped the Chief Inspector’s fear of flying, the decision also highlighted his dependence on the dogged efforts and boundless support of Lewis.

Again, Morse confidently posits a hypothesis based on the seemingly impenetrable array of facts, which in turn is dismantled by the developing evidence, only to be adapted anew as Morse sculpts out the truth, until the final explanation is revealed. In this case a very satisfying conclusion and the usual acknowledgement that you have to hand it to Morse – he is clever!

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Revenge – a dish best served cold…

12:26 AM 1 JULY 2017

Book 9/13 relating the mysterious work of Chief Inspector Morse and his colleague DS Lewis. On this occasion, Oxford and three of the city’s copious academics are playing host to a busload of swanky American tourists, billeted in the splendid 5* Randolph Hotel. However, the visit is more significant than belied by the group’s local itinerary. One of the tourists is due to donate a jewel encrusted artefact, owned by her late husband that will be rejoined with the famous ‘Wolvercote Tongue’, housed in the Ashmolean Museum, for the first time in centuries. That is, until the benefactor dies suddenly and the valuable buckle goes missing. Only Morse is keen to delve into the apparent coincidence of a tragic, but natural death and stolen property. When two days later a naked, battered body is fished out of the River Cherwell, it seems Morse may have been right to be sceptical about such apparently random events, but establishing the connections is a complex and daunting puzzle.

Intriguingly the famous red MkII Jaguar driven by Morse and emblem of the TV adaption starring John Thaw, in reality gets its first mention in Chapter 18 of the ninth book. Until this point, Morse had driven a rather less iconic and more inconspicuous Lancia. Somehow it felt like it should be a watershed moment, but it is after all, just a set of wheels.

Appearing as it does between two CWA Gold Dagger-winning books (‘The Wench is Dead’, 1989 and ‘The Way Through the Woods’, 1992), this 1991 novel clearly stemmed from a rich vein of form for Colin Dexter. Certainly, ‘The Jewel That was Ours’ is a potent blend of intricate plot, imbued with lavishly dramatic characters, inhabiting the complementary elite domains of academics and the wealthy. Both in their turn foster hypocrisy and arrogance, but the reader sits safely in the knowledge that, in time, Morse will expose the pretentious and the guilty. Not that Morse isn’t equally endowed with such human frailties, but with Lewis alongside, to keep him honest, the Chief Inspector is able to give full rein to his deductive powers.

In another cameo appearance, the pathologist (Max) continues to antagonise Morse, while also denying him any tangible forensic advantage. The gallows humour between them and the exasperation effected by Morse is quite comical and yet they share an undercurrent of mutual respect, which is also quite touching between these heavyweight doyens. 

Overall this is one of the more satisfying volumes in the set and the descriptions of parts of Oxford made it all the more compelling.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Truth has no ‘Best Before’ date…..

11:00 PM 18 JUNE 2017

8/13 of the series of mysteries involving Chief Inspector Morse and I was looking forward to this book, safe in the knowledge that it had secured for Colin Dexter the CWA Gold Dagger, for ‘Best Crime Novel of the Year’ (1989). Certainly the storyline was something of a departure, in that Morse deploys his formidable cerebral resources to solve a murder reportedly committed in 1859 and for which two men were hanged. Moreover, for the most part, Morse is hospitalised for treatment of a perforated ulcer and yet, this enables his faculties to be given full rein, albeit he also enlists the help of DS Lewis and a visitor who works at the Bodleian Library to undertake the leg work.

The John Radcliffe Hospital proves a fertile territory for Morse to fantasize about the nursing fraternity and flirt with several women ensnared by his blue eyes, though youthful nurses and faltering health do also bring the Chief Inspector uncomfortably before the realization that he is getting older, with a diminishing future.

The book is shorter than most in the series, but the pace of the story is well maintained and the crime took place on the Oxford Canal, when narrow-boats remained crucial to the lifeblood of commerce, giving the plot an additional curiosity value. The fact that two boatmen had also been found guilty of the murder of Joanna Franks, an attractive passenger on the Pickford & Co.’s express (or ‘fly’), non-stop boat-ride to London and been sentenced to death, while a third was subject to transportation, simply added to a frisson of suspense. As Morse sought to critique the original investigation at a distance of more than 150 years, the reader bears witness to a consummate puzzle-solver, revelling in the mental challenge! This may be the most vulnerable that we have seen Morse so far and yet, in this tale, he is also at his most perceptive and most likable. 

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Persuasive Eyes?

7:30 PM 12 JUNE 2017

Book 7/13 in the set of Chief Inspector Morse mysteries and for a change just the one murder, a lone victim from a New Year’s party at the Howarth Hotel, Oxford, but lots of suspects. And so ensues the weeding out of the guest list, though it is the customary piece of inspired lateral thinking by Morse, which finally initiates a crack in the impenetrable murder investigation.

Having loosened a thread, Morse tugs tenaciously on it, slowly unstitching the warp and weft of the bigger picture, to reveal innocuous and criminal secrets. DS Lewis is again called upon to anchor the more whimsical notions of his superior. However, on this occasion, Lewis’s role as a ‘critical friend’ appears to be welcomed by Morse and the heat and light sparked by their abrasive interaction and maturing relationship is accepted as a positive price worth paying.

By the high standards set by Colin Dexter this is perhaps the most ‘straightforward’ case so far. Still, the repeated penchant the author has for seeing Morse propositioned by women, beguiled it seems by exposure to the character’s blue eyes and the shortest of police interrogations, remains the most implausible thing in this book, and the series! 

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Echoes of Holmes and Watson

1:03 PM 20 MAY 2017

6/13 in the series of crime mysteries involving Chief Inspector Morse and as seems to be Dexter’s habit, this book is split into separate parts (‘miles’ in this case) and though not described as such, Chapter 1 provides a prologue set in El Alamein, 1942. In particular, the narrative introduces the three Gilbert brothers – Alfred and Albert (twins) and their younger sibling, John and a young field officer in the Royal Wiltshires, Lieutenant Browne-Smith. Fast forward to the University of Oxford and Dr Browne-Smith is on a panel of examiners considering the submissions of the academic creme de la creme – the ‘greats’, but the echo of that distant past will drive a profound sequence of macabre events, which Morse is called upon to unpick.

‘The Riddle of the Third Mile’ is thirty pages shorter than most of the books in this series, but Morse and his trusty sidekick DS Lewis are on good form and through mention of the ‘greats’, the author gives us some additional insight into the former academic career of the enigmatic Chief Inspector. Morse is now 52, but intriguingly the hallowed halls and the intense love he found there have clearly shaped the man. Indeed, the reader might surmise that lost love and spectre of what might have been perhaps contributed to the gruff shell behind which Morse, in his self-imposed isolation, tends to operate. It is also tempting to speculate on whether Lewis, who endures a torrid relationship with his superior and yet remains endearingly loyal to the ‘great’ man, in some ways occupies an important space in the emotional vacuum of Morse’s life. However, for me, part of the curiosity piqued by Dexter lies in the oblique insights into the unfamiliar elite world of high-end academia. Just as Agatha Christie’s Poirot typically plies his detective skills in the upper echelons of the inter-war British class system, so Morse can help the reader navigate the revered institution of which he was once part. The stark contrasts of the public facade, with the soft underbelly of wider society and the seamless way in which Morse traverses the two lends the series a gritty realism and yet remains equally implausible enough to be obvious fiction. Still, the book is enjoyable for all that.

The discovery of a headless torso (also minus hands and legs) is unusual, but not gratuitously grotesque. Moreover, as Morse seeks to understand the purpose of such deliberate mutilation, it does provide a vehicle for the resumption of barbed banter with the police pathologist (‘Max’), as the body count also mounts further. I think the brilliance of Morse lies in his ability to identify and assemble clues and marshall his thoughts to formulate them into a working hypothesis. The acknowledged value of Lewis lies in  the blunt challenge he poses to his boss’s ideas and the debunking of the fanciful, to keep Morse planted on terra firma. They are, it seems, more than the sum of their respective parts, but In the tradition of Holmes and Watson, they are also a compelling double act and much more than an aside to their investigations.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Spare a thought for poor old Lewis!

4:48 PM 13 MAY 2017

5/13 of the mystery novels by Colin Dexter featuring Chief Inspector Morse and this one, published in 1981, was a worthy winner of the CWA Silver Dagger. The book is split into a prologue, four books and an epilogue, but curiously, Morse doesn’t assume the lead of the investigation into the death of a passing female acquaintance until the start of Book 3 and DS Lewis is also belatedly introduced over halfway in. Of course the benefit for Morse is that unfettered by investigative protocols at the outset, he is able to deploy some unconventional tactics and privately question whether the victim had indeed committed suicide. However, we can also see the stabilizing influence of Lewis, keeping his superior grounded and challenging the more fanciful inventions of Morse’s prodigious imagination.

The crime is set in ‘Jericho’ which is apparently a former industrial area of Oxford alongside the canal and though the lack of a reliable provenance for the name is intriguing, I enjoyed the map, which enabled the reader to follow the street and landmark references. We also learned that Morse is now fifty years old, so three years have seemingly passed since the previous novel.Still, it is the contrasts, wealth and poverty, culture and depravity, learned and illiterate, attractive and ugly, which again permeate the characters and present a sometimes sordid display of human behaviour. Meanwhile, the enigma that is Morse, a flawed genius subject to the vagaries of imperfect instincts, is exposed just a little more and the longsuffering Lewis has to bite his tongue in the face of tetchy, diva-like tantrums from his volatile boss.

The plot is deceptively simple, but the clues are deftly assembled and rearranged as Morse veers off on fruitless tangents, only for his hypotheses to be dismantled and constructed anew in the light of changed evidence. Of course, the quaffing of beer remains central to all the meaningful progress in the case, but it is also in these moments, typically shared by Morse and Lewis, that shine a dull light on the burgeoning intimacy of their relationship, such as when Morse asks his sergeant why he calls him ‘sir’.

It’s interesting that in the TV adaptation, it was hard not to be enthralled by the character played by John Thaw. On the page though, it’s equally hard not to find the brilliant Chief Inspector a rather tragic and dislikeable man. Perhaps, It is the presence of Lewis that deliberately keeps Morse honest and anchored among mere mortals, but it is a pretty thankless task!

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Morse Gets Down and Dirty….

1:09 PM 17 APRIL 2017

Book 3 of the Dexter ‘set’ and a brooding Chief Inspector Morse grapples with the murder of a newly appointed member of the Oxford Examination Syndicate. Nicholas Quinn was deaf and though talented, not the unanimous choice of the other ‘syndics’, to join their studious ranks. Still, Morse needs to tease apart the complex social connections and doggedly unpick the dense layers of motivation and alibi to unmask the culprit.

My only criticisms would be the author’s penchant for conferring tawdry weakness indiscriminately (all of the key suspects appear to have an appetite for pornography). Dexter commonly challenges the superficial gloss of academia and Oxford, often juxtaposing it with contrastingly brutal and uncivilized aspects of ‘real’ life. However, the tarring of so many characters with the same feeble brush seemed strikingly implausible. So too, the final gathering of the academics to hear Morse’s conclusion. It felt rather reminiscent of Agatha Christie’s drawing room finales, but simply not as convincing.

I was coming round to the notion that fictional detectives are necessarily a reflection of their environment. But, in that case, Morse might be expected to evince rather more style and class. Certainly, in this book, the depth of the Chief Inspector’s intellect is rather betrayed by the shallow nature of his character. Even the long-suffering, up-holder of standards, DS Lewis, seemed to be detrimentally affected, as he went about his gofer duties. Perhaps, Morse will rediscover his love of opera and Wagner, conspicuously absent in this episode and be once more elevated to higher things. One can but hope!

Rating: 3 out of 5.