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.

Sens – ational read

12:54 AM 14 AUGUST 2016

It is an intriguing feature of the writing of Joanne Harris (author of ‘Chocolat’) that she deliberately soothes and entices the reader’s senses with her evocative descriptions of tastes and smells. And yet, her innovative use of a bottle of wine as a narrator, perhaps extending the notion of ‘character’ beloved by gourmets, conferred a tongue-in-cheek, surreal quality to this novel, at times. Certainly the device raised my eyebrows initially, but the masterly story-telling by Harris ensured that this quirky element didn’t detract from a wonderfully atmospheric tale.

The story centres on Jay Mackintosh, one-time acclaimed author, beset by writer’s block and the expectation of a second success, mired in a meaningless relationship. In a spontaneous, but desperate attempt to break free, Jay buys a property in Lansquenet, and drops out of sight.

In a clever weaving of alternate story-lines, Jay reflects on his childhood and the influence of his journey from ‘Pog Hill’, amid the new chapter of his life unfurling in France. The six ‘specials’ (bottles of homemade wine laid down by his childhood mentor, Joe) are a tangible link with the past for Jay and seem to unlock a spiritual/magical connection, enabling the the reappearance of the ethereal Joe and his earthy counsel. 

Meanwhile, in Lansquenet, Jay is drawn to his neighbour (Marise), who is stuck in her own domestic nightmare. Are the echoes of their respective personal histories fated, or can they yet rescue each other?  This is a warm and thought-provoking novel, which invites the reader to evaluate ‘what matters’ in life, but also draws on the metaphor of maturing wine. “Men are like wine – some turn to vinegar, but the best improve with age”. (Pope John XXIII).

Rating: 4 out of 5.