Sunday, July 02, 2023

the last book I read

Last Bus To Woodstock by Colin Dexter. 

Meet Morse. He's a maverick Detective Chief Inspector with a thirst for real ale, cryptic crosswords and opera, or to put it another way, a thirst for not playing by the book - but, dammit, he gets results. 

And a result is what's required here, because there's been a murder: a young woman's body has been found in a pub car park in Woodstock - no, not that one, the one near Oxford. Her name is Sylvia Kaye, and she appears to have been dispatched, rather messily, by having her head caved in with a large tyre-iron.

Inspector Morse and his newly-assigned sidekick, Sergeant Lewis, do all the obvious stuff like questioning all the pub's customers, but since none of them does anything as convenient as breaking down and confessing, a wider enquiry seems to be called for. This enquiry revolves around certain questions: how did Sylvia get from central Oxford to the pub at Woodstock? Could she have got a lift? If so, with whom? 

Crazed flashes of inspiration brought on by intensive real ale and crossword consumption can only get you so far, though, and there comes a time when you've got to put in the legwork and do some actual police work, although there's always the option of delegating some of the more tedious stuff to Lewis. Anyway, Sylvia worked at an insurance firm in Oxford so the detectives start there: could it have been a disgruntled colleague? Her, boss, Mr. Palmer? 

Nothing especially conclusive emerges here, apart from the suspicion that the icy and enigmatic Jennifer Coleby knows more than she's letting on, so the detectives' focus moves to how Sylvia got from the bus stop where she was spotted by a member of the public to the pub car park where she was killed, and to the identity of the other young woman who was with her at the bus stop. No-one saw her subsequently take a bus, so the suspicion is that she, and possibly her companion, hitched a lift with someone. But who? Are they the murderer? And what happened to the other woman, whoever she was?

Local university academic Bernard Crowther soon emerges as the driver of the car, but claims no knowledge of the circumstances of Sylvia's murder. In any case, there's a logjam of other suspects to choose from, including Jennifer Coleby, Mr. Palmer, local porn-addicted ne'er-do-well (and Sylvia's occasional boyfriend) John Sanders, and Jennifer Coleby's flatmate Sue Widdowson, a local nurse who Morse meets when he falls off a ladder and injures his foot and promptly decides he is in love with.

Things ramp up a notch when Morse receives letters from both Bernard Crowther and his wife Margaret, both claiming to have been the murderer, a situation further complicated by Margaret turning up dead shortly afterwards, having stuck her head in the gas oven, and Bernard turning up nearly-dead shortly after that, having discovered her body and suffered a massive heart attack. Morse is convinced, however, that neither of them actually did it, despite each having evidently been convinced that the other did. Morse is convinced that the identity of the other young woman at the bus stop holds the key to the mystery, and he is, eventually, and after a few wrong turnings, correct.

The Morse series of novels (Last Bus To Woodstock is the first, published in 1975) is probably most famous these days as the source material for the Inspector Morse TV series starring John Thaw as Morse. While many of the 2-hour episodes were directly adapted from the novels (Last Bus To Woodtsock being one of them, though the episodes are in a different order from the books), some are not - there were 33 episodes and there are only 13 novels.

Morse as portrayed here is pretty close to how John Thaw portrayed him in the TV series - intellectual, irascible, thwarted from higher promotion by his attitude and personal habits but perhaps uninterested in promotion anyway, a bit too keen on the ale and whisky but capable of flashes of insight denied to most, though this doesn't stop him from being wrong about the answer several times before eventually being right. He is also apparently irrepressibly horny, and very much inclined to ill-advised liaisons with female suspects who turn out (*cough* SPOILER ALERT) to be the murderer. 

I enjoyed this, as much for the re-acquaintance with a familiar character as for the resolution of the plot, which (like many detective novels) favours the aha-you-never-saw-that-coming revelation over sense-making and plausibility. This being the mid-70s, the revelation that Sylvia may have been raped as well as murdered (it eventually turns out to have been consensual) prompts some light-hearted BANTZ about it from various characters that might be seen as a bit, hem hem, problematic these days:

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