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.

Tribute to the late Colin Dexter

12:02 AM 26 MARCH 2017

I read this first Inspector Morse mystery in honour of the author who passed away this week. In fact, I have the set of thirteen Morse novels and I really must be getting on with them. I deliberately read this first one fairly intensively, if only to keep the complex storyline fixed in my head, but the central characters – Chief Inspector Morse and Detective Sergeant Lewis – popularized in the ITV adaption, come together for the first time here and offer the prospect of a burgeoning relationship. Of course, once exposed to the TV characters, as one reads it’s hard not to conjure up a mental picture of John Thaw and Kevin Whately, even if the Chief Inspector is driving a Lancia.

Like Morse, Colin Dexter’s writing style is complex and his plotlines intelligent and sophisticated. A former graduate of Cambridge, it is curious that the author should choose to set his series of novels in Oxford. Yet, the backdrop of dreaming spires and college cloisters surrenders a potential wealth of articulate, affluent characters linked to this seat of learning, alongside the harsher reality of city life in the Thames valley. Following the well-trodden footsteps of Sherlock Holmes, in Morse we are enthralled by the detective’s superior intellect, in spite of the character’s equally obvious flaws. And in DS Lewis, Morse has the perfect foil, whereby blunt common sense and diligent police work enables the more florid, ale-fuelled genius to flourish.

In a sense, the emotional vulnerability displayed by Morse in his pursuit of a ‘love’ interest is surprising, but his ineptitude in the relationship department is nonetheless endearing. In this opening story, Morse and Lewis are beginning to find the measure of each other and formulating a working relationship, which meshes their respective strengths, but the sparks between them also also keeps this partnership interesting, with more to come.

As well as the crime (in this instance murder), the key to the crime novel is often how the ‘solution’ is unpacked and here Dexter has Morse subtly explain his ‘working out’ to Lewis. The conclusion is slightly melodramatic for my taste, but a giant among literary detectives began his rise to popularity with this book.

Twelve books to go. How exciting! And what an exceptional body of work!

Rating: 4 out of 5.