SPOILER ALERT: In several cases I have revealed part or all of the mystery in my analysis of the writer’s technique. Please refrain from reading further If you don’t want to know. I have inserted the SPOILER tag in front of the relevant paragraphs, unless I missed one, but other minor information is revealed elsewhere. I also discuss the television adaptations of the novels.
Colin Dexter is a British writer and former teacher who started turning out mystery novels while in his 40s. His main detective is Inspector Morse, who made his debut in Last Bus to Woodstock (1975), which opens with a pair of young girls unwisely trying to hitch a ride, after which the body of one turns up dead. Morse is a bit of an oddity, prone to make unusual observations that have nothing obvious to do with the case in hand. He alternates between apparent disinterest in his cases to intense sessions in which he accomplishes a great deal of work, and he keeps his subordinates on edge. Sometimes his inspiration comes from turning questions around and looking at them from another viewpoint. He also has a flexible regard for the law. When told that his betting on horse races is illegal, he shrugs: “I never studied that side of the law.” He is “pedantic and fussy”, an atheist, more than slightly fond of drinking, and not averse to flirtation. He is fond of crossword puzzles and has never married. Morse also has a number of phobias including a fear of heights and a queasiness around automobile accidents, although he is not troubled by examining mutilated bodies of murder victims.
In his first appearance, he immediately perceives that the man who found the young woman’s body knew her personally, had in fact been waiting for her in a local pub. We know from the prologue that she and a friend were hitching a ride, and since there’s no sign of the other woman, it appears she has been abducted, although we soon learn that is not the case. Morse is convinced that the second girl was one of her co-workers, although they all claim otherwise, and he soon catches one of them lying about her movements on the night in question, although that appears to be a red herring. A few other characters are introducing including an unfaithful husband and his suicidal wife, a truck driver who saw the girls get into a red car, a working man addicted to pornography, and others.
SPOILER. Morse draws a profile of the party he believes is responsible for the murder, which reflects that of the unfaithful husband, Bernard Crowther, quite accurately, suggesting the solution. This seemed to happen rather early in the novel – not quite halfway – so I suspected something was wrong. The man who picked up the girls has a plausible story. He took them as far as Woodstock and left them before going to meet his lover, which situation explains his dilatory admission to the police that he was the man in question. At the same time, Morse’s temporary assistant, Lewis, has suggested another scenario in which a man was mistaken for a woman and the driver of the car was not involved at all. Despite this, Morse remains suspicious and orders further investigations of Crowther.
He refuses to give up even when Crowther’s wife commits suicide and leaves a note confessing to murdering her husband’s mistress. Then Crowther has a fatal heart attack, leaving behind a confession note of his own to the same crime. Dexter uses a romantic entanglement between Morse and another character, Sue Widdowson, to mask the fact that she is intimately involved in the crime. The resolution has several twists and turns, and reasonably ties things up, but I had two quibbles. First, the character of Widdowson as portrayed does not match the one that is later revealed, and the disparity is jarring. Second, Morse threads his way through the conflicting stories more by lucky guesses than by intuition, and he ignores several lines of inquiry.
The novel is written in a brisk, sparse style that reduces what for other writers might have been an entire chapter into a few short paragraphs. His dialogue is terse, but his descriptive paragraphs are occasionally convoluted. Dexter’s characterization of pornography as a kind of debilitating drug is an interesting artifact of the 1970s that feels archaic now. Similarly, his deduction that the murder victim was a woman of easy virtue based on the fact that she had an inadequate number of bras to match her other clothing is both presumptuous and archaic. Most traditional detective stories are told from a single viewpoint, either the detective or a proxy whom we know to be innocent. Dexter uses the omniscient author, skipping away from his detective to show us glimpses of the lives of other characters, even lapsing into present tense narration at times. This gives the reader the chance to actually know more than the detective, rather than less, as is usually the case.
The casting of John Thaw as Morse in the 1992 television adaptation struck me as a bit strange, since he is much older than the character in the novels. The plot starts very much the same, but there’s another of the coded notes that were used for to set up the illicit assignations, and the red herring about the possible abduction of the dead girl’s companion is omitted. Thaw is much less irascible and unpleasant and Lewis is much more sure of himself. The secret love affair is revealed early in the dramatization, perhaps to keep the story less complex for inattentive viewers. Some other minor details are changed simply because they would have been difficult to show on film without giving too much away. The flirtation between Morse and Widdowson would also have been inappropriate given the casting. There is considerable new material about the three women who live together, some of it irrelevant . The basic story remains, but there are numerous and sometimes substantial variations. Most significant of these is that neither of the Crowthers die or confess to the murder. The simplification of the story seems neither necessary nor helpful, since they added in other subplots that contribute not at all.
Morse returned in Last Seen Wearing (1977). Seventeen year old Valerie Taylor leaves home without a word and is missing for more than two years, after which she sends a brief note to her parents – if it really was from her – saying that she is all right but not telling anyone where she is. The original investigating officer believed that the girl had been murdered, and he died in an auto accident the day before she mailed the letter, suggesting a connection. Morse doesn’t want the case but is forced to take it on. We are then introduced to a number of characters including Valerie’s father, a headmaster who met her and had a brief fling with her before she disappeared and before he became head of her school, an ex-boyfriend, and others.
A review of the file suggests nothing out of the ordinary in Valerie’s home and school life. A crossing guard saw her shortly before she disappeared, but noted nothing unusual. Although Lewis believes that the note proves she is still alive, Morse is convinced that she is, as first suspected, long since dead. Since Morse has proven to be unreliable in his intuitions in the past, the reader cannot safely assume this is the case as would be true with most other fictional detectives. Morse bullies the boyfriend into admitting that she was pregnant. We also have strong evidence that the father may have been the headmaster, Phillipson. Other clues and red herrings mix. Valerie was an illegitimate child, not fathered by her mother’s husband. And when Morse interviews her, he discovers that someone else was concealed in the house.
More characters and motives emerge. Phillipson’s wife is obsessively determined to protect their lifestyle, and pretends that she doesn’t know that her husband was unfaithful. Valerie’s mother admits that her husband is not the father, that she had the baby before they met. Morse suspects that Valerie pressured the headmaster into helping her get an abortion, even though it was not his child, and that her parents may have been complicit in this, although they expected her to return from London after the operation, which did not happen. He also believes, correctly, that Baines was aware of Phillipson’s indiscretion and is informally blackmailing him. We also meet Professor Acum, a French teacher, who appears to have no motive although the omniscient author suggests that he is more involved than we realize. This latter is rather clumsily done, an authorial intrusion into the story.
Morse is aided – thanks to the author – with leaps of logical deduction that are pretty close to cheating. He intuitively guesses the proper area of investigation, if not the solution, with only the faintest justification. On the other hand, he cleverly disproves the handwriting analysis that suggested the note was in fact written by the missing girl by forging one himself that also passes muster. When Baines is murdered, a search of his flat provides evidence supporting the Acum connection, which makes the earlier intrusion even more annoying. Acum is one of the few people listed in Baines’ telephone list, along with Phillipson. We know that Baines was murdered by someone he knew, perhaps even expected, and the circumstances suggest that it was not Phillipson, with whom he had recently quarreled. A neighbor reports having seen a woman enter the house on the night in question. Morse is able to identify the visitor as Mrs. Phillipson with little difficulty, but she insists she never saw Baines, and instead surprises him by revealing that she in turn had seen Acum in the neighborhood. This is perhaps stretching coincidence a bit far since it’s at least the fourth coincidental meeting in the story, but it’s not entirely implausible in itself.
SPOILERS. The last few chapters are particularly well plotted and executed, however. Morse builds a very plausible case against Valerie’s mother, only to have it fall apart when he receives definite proof that Valerie is still alive. He discovers that Acum was the man who made her pregnant, and that Acum was being blackmailed by Baines, but that case also is disproved. Convinced that Valerie is still alive, he tracks down a woman from the abortion clinic, convinced that Valerie adopted her identity, and is proved wrong again. The only remaining woman in the case who could fill the bill is Mrs. Acum, and he confronts her only to become convinced that she is not Valerie either. Finally he discovers that he has been fooled again, and one of his previous theories proves to be the correct one.
We learn a little bit more about Morse in this one. He’s a devoted fan of opera, for one thing, and afraid of spiders. Sergeant Lewis, who assisted in the first case, is back and established as Morse’s Doctor Watson, not as intuitively brilliant but solid and down to earth. Dexter continues to use short scenes and very little description, repeating the pattern of the first book. Morse’s penchant for getting wrong, but for developing very plausible incorrect explanations, is an unorthodox but entertaining approach. Most writers would have made his assistant, Lewis, the source of all the incorrect theories so that Morse could disprove them.
Last Seen Wearing also appeared on television in 1992. This got off to a bad start for me, even leaving aside the dreadful soundtrack. Valerie Taylor is renamed Valerie Craven for no good reason, and she’s from a wealthy family going to a private rather than public school. Inspector Ainley is not dead, but the case gets passed on any way. Her father is a school governor and manager of a rubbish tip, a pretty substantial change, and her mother is definitely not a bar maid. The letter – which doesn’t read the same – comes after Morse is involved rather than precipitating it. Morse’s early, incorrect conviction that Valerie is dead did survive the transition, but not a lot of the rest of the plot did. Just as they left the pornography and other kinky sex out of Last Train to Woodstock, the writer avoids it here by eliminating the boyfriend’s job at the sex club. He’s also much too old to be dating a teenager. And Baines is turned into a woman with a dramatically different personality. The period Valerie was missing is changed from more than two years to just six months, also for no apparent reason. The entire method of her disappearance is changed, which makes the title pointless. You can take it from this that I was not happy with the adaptation.
There’s more. The reason why Morse wrote the second letter is never well explained, and is promoted to being the cause of the murder that follows. Baines is thrown down a staircase after an argument instead of being stabbed in the back without suspecting a thing. It’s not even obvious that it’s murder. Lewis is the one who acts unreasonably instead of Morse. The first letter is no longer actually from Valerie. Baines sent it, a theory which Morse DISPROVES in the book. Phillipson is having an affair with Valerie’s mother instead of Baines, and he didn’t have the brief fling with Valerie that happened in the book. Baines is not blackmailing anyone, and the multiple visitors to her house the night of the murder become even more contrived. Mrs. Phillipson has no good reason at all to have been there, and she found the body, which didn’t happen in the book. Although Valerie’s abortion is mentioned peripherally, the roommate – who becomes prime suspect in the book – doesn’t appear in the film at all, and the boyfriend is implicated as the father, even though he wasn’t. Worst of all, there’s an entirely different solution. Valerie did not kill Baines in this version; it was Phillipson, the headmaster. Motive, method, murderer, victim, and virtually every other aspect of the novel were thrown out. The result is close to utter crap. I know and expect screen writer’s to take some liberties with the original material but this seemed as though the writer was determined to make it his own story with just hints of the original work, and that is simply dishonest.
Next came The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn (1977). Nicholas Quinn is an Oxford academic employed at a bureau which devises tests. He is nearly deaf, hence the title. Quinn is caught up in a rivalry between the Secretary, Bartlett, and a member of the committee named Roope. Another staff member is Philip Ogleby, rather reclusive although he is known to have clandestinely searched the Secretary’s office. The other committee members include Daniel Martin and Monica Height, who are having an uneasy affair. He is married, she is not. Quinn is found murdered in his apartment, poisoned, dead for at least two days, although there is uncertainty about the exact time. We have been provided with no motive or other evidence, except the hint of a suggestion that he may have read lips at the wrong time.
Morse is promptly assigned and his first observation is that the easy chair in Quinn’s apartment has not been positioned properly. He is also interested in a shopping receipt and requests an immediate inventory of the food remaining in the apartment. This suggests that he is trying to determine how much food was eaten after the shopping was done, a potential clue to the time of death. It is also left unclear whether Quinn died where he was discovered by Daniel Martin, since his car was scene at the office some evenings back, but he himself was nowhere to be found. A search of Quinn’s office reveals a coded letter, suggesting that someone has been selling inside information about the tests in advance. Although there is considerable evidence that Quinn was alive on the previous Friday, it is all circumstantial – someone noticed his car on the road, he supposedly left a note for his cleaning lady, etc. Since no one actually saw him, the reader and Morse both suspect that things were arranged to make it appear he was still alive when in fact he was not.
Alibis are ambiguous. Height and Martin claim that they were together but Morse suspects they are lying. Ogleby was supposed to be at a conference. We also learn, although Morse is not initially aware of the fact, that Quinn was having a rather heavy flirtation with the married woman who lived directly above him. A ticket stub suggests that Quinn did attend a cinema that day and Morse suspects he was not alone. He is also quite sure that everyone he interviewed, with the possible exception of Bartlett, was lying about their activities on Friday afternoon.
Morse confronts Height and Martin with evidence that they attended the cinema together, but they seem surprised to learn that Quinn might also have been there. It seems to Morse that they expected him to name someone else, most likely Ogleby, but they still won’t reveal the full truth. A logical deduction at this point would be that Ogleby was the killer, that he planted his ticket stub on Quinn’s body to suggest he’d been at the movie. But Ogleby insists that he did not attend, and Morse finds his statement convincing, even more so when Ogleby is murdered.
SPOILER ALERT. Dexter repeats himself a bit with the ending, in which Morse wrongly arrests one man after making a clever case against him, then arrests the real culprit – in this case culprits. This enables him to provide two different solutions. The use of two murderers – and there’s a third accomplice as well – borders on cheating since each has an alibi for the other’s murder. Everything is neatly tied up, but I didn’t find this one as interesting as its two predecessors.
After my experience with the film version of Last Seen Wearing, I was not looking forward to watching the 1991 adaptation of this novel. A glance through the cast list was promising – all of the right names and no new ones. The story opens with the scene in which Quinn lipreads (incorrectly in part) the conspiracy and tells Ogleby, a fact which we don’t know until quite late in the book and which is, in fact, Morse’s speculation. This makes Ogleby’s investigation more comprehensible and diminishes the mystery somewhat. We also see the body bundled into the trunk, though we don’t necessarily know that’s what’s in the bag. The dirty movie at the theater switches from The Nymphomaniac to Last Tangle in Paris and we see Height spot Bartlett leaving, though we don’t know who she’s there to meet. This shuffling around was probably necessary for reasons of time but it does detract from the unraveling of stories that takes place in the novel. At least the essential items are all in place.
One odd but minor change is that Height, who drinks profusely in the novel, is abstemious in the film. The rest of the plot is quite close to the original and only varies in small details and the elimination of some side issues that didn’t contribute directly to the story. One of the better adaptations I’ve seen, and certainly the best treatment among the first three Dexter novels.
Service of All the Dead (1979) centers on a moderately affluent church. Harry Josephs is the churchwarden, whom the Reverend Lawson is convinced has been taking money out of the offering plate. Harry also has had his license suspended for drunken driving. His life, Brenda Josephs, is having an affair with a music instructor named Paul Morris, and Harry knows about it. Morris is caught sneaking into Lawson’s lodgings at the rectory by a homeless person Lawson has been sheltering and who some believed to be Lawson’s brother because they look so much alike. The homeless man proceeds to blackmail Morris. Meanwhile, both Brenda wife and her lover have decided that they wish Harry dead. It seemed obvious early on that he was going to be the victim. We also briefly meet Morris’ young son – his wife died in an accident – and Ruth Rawlinson, who works at the church occasionally and who overhears a conversation about blackmail. Morris, we discover, is also carrying on a flirtation with one of his students, Carole.
Morse comes to the case a good deal later, and unofficially. Curious about the death of Harry Josephs, who was stabbed to death in the vestry during a service, he enters the church and finds Rawlinson, who provides skeletal details. In addition to the stab wound, Josephs had ingested enough morphine to kill him. A month after that, Larson was killed after a fall from the church tower, ruled an accident but raising suspicions in the minds of both Morse and the reader. The unofficial police opinion is that Larson killed Josephs, possibly because the latter had discovered that he was gay, and then committed suicide out of remorse.
Morse and Lewis find a long dead corpse on the roof of the church, and Morse develops the beginning of a theory. For one thing, Larson withdrew all of his savings shortly before Josephs was killed. For another, he is skeptical of the identification of Larson’s body, and puzzled by the disappearance of Morris and his son, Brenda Josephs, and the homeless man all within a few weeks of the deaths. The reader’s suspicions might veer in the same direction, but we should remember that Morse’s early theories are almost always incorrect. The dead man on the roof is believed to be Paul Morris, a conclusion Morse reaches just as – elsewhere in England – Brenda Josephs is fatally poisoned. Evidence appears to be mounting that someone is eliminating anyone who might know something, consciously or not, about the original murder, and the possibility that Lawson is still alive, having faked his own death, seems the most likely solution, at least to this point.
Dexter then shows some of his cards. Although we don’t know his identity, the murderer is a man, and he’s currently having an affair with Rawlinson, although he plans to kill her because of what she knows about him. Morse explores the crypt below the church and finds the body of Peter Morris. At this point we are left with Lawson, if he’s not dead, and his brother, if Lawson is dead, as the only likely suspects. Morse is now of the opinion that it was indeed Reverend Lawson who died, by jumping from the tower, but he has no idea why or how this connects to the murders. This seems to be the case when Morse battles the killer, whom he believes to be Lawson’s brother, on the church tower, resulting in the other man falling to his death. But there are too many pages left to go and we know there has to be another twist. It comes when Morse announces that the dead man is not Lawson’s brother after all.
Further twists abound. Rawlinson then confesses that she, the Lawson brothers, Paul Morris, and Brenda Josephs all conspired to murder Josephs, that the supposed church service never even took place. This seems to be confirmed by the fact that it was never listed in any of the church publications. She also says she believes Lawson committed suicide out of remorse. It would then lead us to believe that the other Lawson was methodically killing his co-conspirators, and since he is also dead, there is no one to contradict her story. Except Morse, who insists it’s all a pack of lies.
There’s a bit of a cheat in the final solution because it’s only then that we learn that Reverend Lawson once tried to murder his brother, suggesting a long enduring enmity. I am pleased to say that I did correctly guess a large part of the correct solution, that the misidentified body was not Lawson by Josephs, who was not murdered in the first place. The body identified as Josephs as actually that of Lawson’s dissolute brother. Even Morse doesn’t have the whole story though, because Dexter provides a clue after the fact that suggests Reverend Lawson did not in fact commit suicide after all. And finally, Morse gets the girl, however briefly. The triple ending is very effective and the story plays fair almost all the way to the end.
The film version appeared in 1992. The opening is changed a bit, probably because it would be hard to show things without revealing the substitution of identities. Morse is involved with Josephs supposed murder right from the outset instead of picking up the investigation on his own initiative months after the fact. Events thereafter are jumbled up a bit, but I’ll give this one considerable leeway because the way Dexter structured the novel made the transition to a visual presentation very difficult. Events are also compressed enormously in time, and I think that’s a more serious mistake because some elements of mystery and uncertainty are eliminated, making it much more obvious what has really taken place.
For example, Morse is much too quick to become suspicious of Reverend Lawson (whose name has been changed for some reason) and his relationship to the choirboys. In fact, his veiled accusation causes Lawson to jump from the roof – whereas in the novel we know that he was also murdered by Josephs. Rawlinson’s mother is also transformed from a harridan to a sympathetic character for no apparent reason, which weakens her daughter’s willingness to go along with the murder. Morris and Mrs. Josephs carry on their liaison openly, in front of the police, which is illogical and very much out of character. Morris is killed within a couple of days so his body has not deteriorated and there is no question of his identity.
On the other hand, most of the important scenes were retained including Morse’s vertigo, the discovery of the boy’s body in the basement, the deadly confrontation in the church, and a toned down version of Morse’s affection for Rawlinson. The pacing is a bit frantic this time, and the actor playing Josephs is really dreadful. Overall it’s a reasonably loyal adaptation, but it lacks the subtleties that made the book exceptional, and the watering down of the triple revelation ending is very disappointing.
The Dead of Jericho (1981) opens with a prologue in which Morse has a brief but intense flirtation with a younger woman named Anne Scott, which obviously will have repercussions in the main story. Since she is married, Morse thinks twice about following up the next day, but several months later finds himself in the neighborhood and decides to stop by to say hello. There initially appears to be no one home in the house but a light mysteriously gets extinguished and Morse smells a rat. Although we don’t see Morse’s immediate reaction, a short time later he hears that a body was found at the site, that Anne Scott has committed suicide, and returns briefly to ask some questions.
Dexter then introduces us to several characters. George Jackson is a handyman and neighbor who had a key to the dead woman’s apartment, who is concealing something from the police, and who may have been present in the house at some time following her death and before the police were called – anonymously from a public phone booth. Charles and Conrad Williams are brothers for whose company Anne once worked. Charles was having an affair, probably with Anne, for which he is clumsily being blackmailed. Edward Murdoch, who might have been the blackmailer but who is not, is a young man she had been tutoring. Charles’ wife Celia knows that he has been unfaithful, as does his brother. Edward also has a brother, Michael, who is hospitalized after taking a drug overdose. We also learn that Scott is not married after all but a widow; she separated from John Westerby many years earlier and he was later killed in an automobile accident.
Morse is not officially involved with the investigation – despite what it claims in the blurb for the Penguin paperback – but manages to get a key to the apartment so that he can poke into things on his own. Walters, a bright young constable, has learned that Morse was at the dead woman’s apartment before the death was reported and that he may even have gone inside, but he doesn’t report this to his superiors until after he has talked to Morse. Then Jackson is beaten to death in his apartment after picking up the blackmail money provided by Charles Williams. At this point I had a theory. Since both deaths could be construed as having helped protect CW from exposure, he would normally have been suspect number one, but he has an ironclad alibi for the second; he was giving a lecture and Morse was present. But that would have been too obvious in any case and my suspicions had already turned to his brother Conrad, who is described as always willing to help his brother out of difficulties. And since we know that he knew about the affair, he looks even better as the chief villain.
As the story unfolds, the mystery becomes more complex because we learn that the mysterious other visitor to the dead woman’s house was not Charles Richards after all but his wife Celia. She had gone to the house, found the door unlocked, and searched until she found some incriminating letters with which Anne Scott was threatening to blackmail her husband. While there she heard a man enter the house and call Scott’s name, both of them obviously unaware that she was already dead in the kitchen. Morse eventually unravels the mystery, which involves a coincidental convergence of characters at a critical time. There is a neat double reversal about the blackmail, and a confusion of identities which I suspected would be very difficult to translate to the screen. I figured out part of the solution to this one well in advance, but the means by which my solution turned out to be the correct one is devious and very satisfying.
Even though I knew it would have to be heavily modified to conceal the surprises, the 1991 film version is a very loose adaptation. Inexplicably, virtually every character has a different name. Instead of being involved in a dalliance, Morse and the victim – Anne Staveley in this incarnation – are members of the same choir and Morse is not a visitor to the crime scene before her death is discovered. The change does away with some development of Morse’s character, but would not in itself be fatal to the adaptation and there is the hint of a flirtation. The gratuitous stolen car ring bust at the opening is also unnecessary and unhelpful. The absence of the party where they meet removes the connection to the two brothers, which changes the basic structure.
The nosy neighbor, Jackson, is present, but Edward is replaced by Ned, a musician who uses Anne’s piano rather than take German lessons, and he’s poor rather than from a wealthy family and he fills the roles of both brothers. Morse meets him when he walks her home from practice. We hew a little closer to the line for a while after that. Morse does avoid mentioning that he knows the dead woman, but it’s Lewis rather than Morse that tracks down the man who made spare keys to her apartment, and it’s more obvious that she has a problem involving her former employer, whose wife is suspicious of his fidelity, and Lewis fills in Walters’ role as well.
The blackmail plot, Jackson’s eavesdropping, the adopted child whose identity is unknown, and some of the other subplots survive, but the advent of Anne’s mother contributes nothing. The substitution of one character for another is accomplished as well as possible, under the circumstances. The publishing company is switched to an engineering company, another pointless change. Despite the superficial divergences from the original book, the essence does survive this time.
The next two Dexter novels were not filmed, even though there are a lot more Morse movies than there are books. The Riddle of the Third Mile (1983) opens with the disappearance of an Oxford don, Oliver Browne-Smith, whom we know is irrationally considered responsible for the death of a young soldier during the war by his brother, Alfred. We also know that the don was terminally ill and that he was lured by a letter to a sex club in London and then a nearby, where an attempt was made to drug him. A forged note was sent to the university to explain his absence. When a headless, limbless body is fished out of a river, there is little doubt in our minds that this is the missing man. On the body is a portion of a letter, apparently to Browne-Smith, offering sexual favors in return for advance information about a student’s grades.
But Dexter has a few surprises for us. The man who died in the war was John Gilbert (who committed suicide although his brothers think he was burned to death in a tank). The brothers are Alfred and Albert Gilbert, one of whom appears to own a furniture moving business employed to clear out the office of George Wetherby, which is next to Browne-Smith’s office. The two dons hated each other passionately. The other brother is a partner in a rental firm which is handling the building to which Browne-Smith was lured.
Two developments disrupted most of my theories. First, there is a lengthy letter received by Morse from Browne-Smith detailing his trip to London, his pretense that he was drugged, and the fact that he was carrying a revolver with him. This seems to indicate that the body in the river was not his, but more likely that of one of the Gilbert brothers, since the removal of the legs would have disguised the fact that one calf had been severely damaged by shrapnel. The second development is the recurring references to Wetherby, who owns a house near where the body was found and who, we discover, may have been the actual recipient of the letter promising sexual favors.
There is some very clever misdirection here. Either the body really is Browne-Smith and the letter is false, or it’s one of three other people and the letter is true. The fact that the body was mutilated but that Browne-Smith’s distinctive suit was not removed suggests that it is not his body but a ruse. We have, therefore, four possible candidates for the corpse’s identity: Browne-Smith, Wetherby, or one of the Gilbert brothers. But all the possibilities are eliminated when Westerly is found murdered in a hotel room, one Gilbert brother is found stabbed to death, the other jumps out of a seventh story window, and Browne-Smith succumbs to his brain tumor. The revelations are clever, convoluted, only cheat a very little bit, and are quite entertaining.
This is one of the real classics of detection, and I’m astonished that it was not filmed as it would undoubtedly make an intriguing, if intense movie. The novel itself is, however, written with a rather whimsical tone at times. We also learn about a romantic interlude during Morse’s college days that do much to illuminate his character.
No film version was made of The Secret of Annexe 3 (1986) either, but there is so little physical action that this is less surprising. This one opens with Thomas Bowman discovering that his wife Margaret has been unfaithful and secretly plotting to find out the identity of the man involved. The story then switches to a recently remodeled Howarth hotel owned by John Binyon and his wife, which is hosting a New Year’s Eve get together for about three dozen guests. We see most of the preparations from the point of view of Sarah Jonstone, one of his employees, who has also noticed an odd looking man in the vicinity – who turns out to be Morse, although she sees nothing menacing in his presence or attitude.
The hotel annex has four rooms. Three are rented to couples and one to a solitary woman, who never checks in. One of the men is found murdered and his wife, if it was his wife, has disappeared. The policeman on the spot fails to require the other two couples to remain and the Smiths have given a false address and cannot at first be traced. The Palmers used the woman’s address – she’s a prostitute – and she gives Morse an apparently solid alibi for herself and her client. There is reason to believe that one of the five was responsible, since the building was locked, although someone sneaks in after the murder and is briefly seen by Jonstone, who remembers that the Smiths did not return their key. Otherwise there are remarkably few physical clues. The dead man was still wearing his costume from the party the night before, but the window was opened and the cold weather makes it difficult to determine the time of death. And Mrs. Smith returned secretly and searched the room, although we don’t know what she was looking for.
Initially I thought the Smiths were the Bowmans, but I was quickly disabused. They are in fact a pair of confidence tricksters who were swindling the hotel out of a free weekend. The dead man’s “wife” was Margaret Bowman, however, and she panics when Morse and Lewis track her down. Morse is convinced that she and her husband murdered the blackmailing lover, murdered him before or shortly after the party started and opened the window to disguise the time of death. His theory is that Tom Bowman then impersonated the dead man by duplicating his costume, made certain that he was seen alive, and that the two of them subsequently left. As it turns out, this is not what happened. It is Bowman who is killed. Dexter does some entertainingly misleading things in the closing chapters to confuse us about the identity of the real killer and even the method. It’s a solid mystery over all, but not one of Dexter’s best efforts.
The Wench Is Dead (1989) is a break from the usual pattern. Morse is hospitalized for several days, during the course of which stay he encounters a pamphlet about a woman murdered in 1859. Joanna Franks was traveling by canal barge with a crew of four reportedly drunken and abusive men. She made several attempts to find alternate transportation without success, and was later found drowned in the canal. The crew were indicted and hanged for murder and rape, but the pamphleteer suggests that the truth was far stranger.
Morse agrees with the writer, having quickly identified several puzzling elements in the story. The sobriety of the crew does not seem to be consistently portrayed, since another woman briefly traveled aboard the boat as well. Morse also suspects that her character is more complex than suggested, that she may actually have invited amorous attentions, or that she may have been suicidal. There is reason to believe that she could have continued her journey by rail or coach but that she didn’t choose to leave the boat for some reason. It is also evident that the judge and jury were prejudiced against the defendants from the outset because of their presumed immorality.
Lewis is dispatched to look into old records and actually stumbles upon one of the bags the dead woman had been carrying, a bit of a stretch in plausibility but it has no real impact on the case. In due course, Morse comes up with an alternate explanation, that the dead woman was not Joanna Franks but an unknown victim employed by her and her husband to defraud the insurance company. With that working premise, he is unable to discover other contradictions and evidence that support his theory. Not the most complex or surprising plot in Morse’s career, but an interesting portrayal of how further analysis can lead to very different conclusions.
I was rather surprised that this book was dramatized given the fact that not much actually happens, but the result is surprisingly good. As usual, there are some early superficial and unnecessary changes – the pamphlet by another patient is turned into a presentation by a visiting criminologist. Most of the other character names remain unchanged except that for some reason Lewis is away and someone else does the legwork he performs in the book. The hospital dialogue is often right out of the book, refreshingly, but the subplot about possible forced retirement for Morse is made up out of whole cloth, as are most of the historic scenes from 1859, although the latter are actually helpful. The former bits are just distracting.
A group of American tourists arrive at a posh hotel in the opening of The Jewel That Was Ours (1991). Shortly after their arrival, one of the women is found dead, apparently of a heart attack. Her purse is missing and it contained a very valuable artifact that she was planning to donate to a museum in Oxford. Since she had left her door unlatched – her husband didn’t have a key – it appears that almost anyone could have sneaked in to steal the purse. If she’d caught the thief in the act, the shock might have precipitated her fatal attack. Arrayed around this central mystery is an affair between two of the people associated with the tour, Sheila Williams and Theodore Kemp, an affair which he has decided to break off in favor of another paramour. There is also some friction between Kemp and another lecturer, and it also appears that the tour organizer, Ashenden, may be having an affair as well.
Morse is on the verge of losing interest since he considers the theft virtually beyond solution, but then the dead woman’s husband disappears for a long period of time, returning in a state of drunkenness. More significantly, Kemp turns up dead, almost certainly murdered, the time of death coinciding with the other man’s absence. Complications, as always, ensue. Three of the men in the party were stationed in the Oxford area during World War II. One sneaked off to visit an old lover, another tried to meet his illegitimate daughter. Their stories about spotting one another seem to give everyone an alibi, but since virtually everyone lied at one point or another, their veracity in general is less than splendid.
When the dead man’s wife commits suicide, the case appears to be spiraling out of control. Morse constructs an elaborate and quite plausible explanation of the murder, suggesting that it was only peripherally related to the theft, but his theory is proven completely wrong. There is a connection, and the solution is a more than a bit of cheat since it involves the conscious collusion of four of the characters to conceal the truth, as well as the inadvertent misdirection resulting from the lies told by the others. An interesting mix of characters this time but the mystery itself is not as compelling.
Next up is The Way Through the Woods (1992), which opens with Morse going on a long overdue but not particularly restful vacation. He becomes interested in a woman, apparently involved in an extra marital affair, whom he meets at the hotel where he is staying. He is also intrigued by a poem sent to the police which appears to contain clues to the disappearance of a visiting student. Interludes stray from Morse’s point of view to that of an unknown party, married, who confesses to having been involved in some kind of sexual misdemeanor and whom we naturally suspect is responsible for the abduction of the young woman.
Morse figures out the clues in the poem and the woman’s body is found in the woods near Oxford, but since she’d been there for a year without being buried, there are not many clues. He also bullies the man who found her pack and camera into admitting that there was film in the camera which his son developed, showing an unidentified man and some birds. His wife destroys several other photographs which show the dead woman posing naked. The only potential suspect early on is David Michaels, the forest ranger who correctly guessed where the body had been left.
Then the surprises start. The body is that of a man, not a woman. Morse suspects it’s the man in the photograph. He is able to identify the house where the picture was taken and visits it. There he meets a man who claims to have recently moved in, but when he checks with the estate manager, he discovers that the man lied and has subsequently disappeared. Morse may well have talked to the murderer without realizing it. Searching the apartment they find various pornographic pictures, including ones of the woman Morse met earlier and is currently involved with, and a list of clients that includes her long standing lover and George Daley, the man who found the dead girl’s camera. We also get a hint that something fishy is going on with the dead girl’s family in Sweden. The philanderer, Hardinge, finally makes an appearance in the story and becomes suspect number two after admitting to Morse that he’s addicted to pornography, which meshes with the earlier sections told from the killer’s viewpoint. Hardinge identified the dead man from the picture as James Myton, the cameraman who worked on the pornographic films. He was one of the people who jointly rented the suspicious apartment and he is also an expert on birds – the missing woman was a devoted bird watcher.
More surprises and half surprises follow. Karin, the missing girl, was also at least once an employee of the agency providing “talent” for the pornography. We are also presented with the possibility that the clue laden poem was not, after all, written by the killer, but by his confessor, a priest, and we know from the earlier passages that a priest is at least suspicious of the killer’s activities. There is also evidence that Philip Daley, son of the man who found the camera, may be involved in something that includes involuntary sex.
I suspected early on that the missing woman was not dead, that she had killed Myton for perhaps justifiable reasons and somehow had fled the country, presently hidden by her mother. I did not expect that Daley, Myton, the ranger Michaels, and Hardinge were all present when she did a strip show for the money she desperately needed. Hardinge makes a statement that seemed to back up my theory, except that he insists Karin and Myton killed each other in the fight. Morse correctly interprets this as a concocted story, however, so the truth remains elusive. Then Daley is found shot to death, and my theory went up in a wisp of smoke. Or so it appeared.
SPOILER ALERT. Dexter had previously used the missing-person-not-really-dead device, which made me suspicious from the outset, and the vaguely duplicitous activities of Karin’s mother seemed to confirm this. Despite some misdirection at the end, my original instinct proved to be correct. Although this was a very engrossing novel, I couldn’t help feeling somewhat cheated. The fact that five people including all of the suspects were part of a major conspiracy made it very unlikely that any reader would be able to figure out what really happened except in general terms. There is also a surprise revelation about the author of the suggestive poem that I won’t explain here, but it’s one of those things that makes you sit up and take notice. A side note: Morse’s sparring partner in the medical examiner’s office, Max, dies of a stroke in this one.
The film version mixes new and original material. There has been a serial killer at work and Karen Anderson is believed to be one of his victims, although she has simply disappeared. The opening is virtually unrecognizable in relation to the book. Morse is not on holiday. A prison inmate is attacked and fatally injured in a washroom. There is no mention of the cryptic letter that is the basis for the whole story in the novel. The body is found during the opening credits, not after considerable detection, and we aren’t introduced to any of the characters until later. Claire, the professional escort, is transformed into a rare book dealer. The dead prisoner is the serial killer believed to have killed Karen Ericson (now Karen Anderson) who is no longer a Swedish student, which makes the subterfuge with passports that is critical to the original story moot as well. Obviously another hatchet job by a screen writer who thinks he knows better than the author what story he wanted to tell. If he wanted to write his own story, why not do so? Most of the Morse episodes were original so there’s no reason why it shouldn’t have been. In the book, his superiors want Morse on the case; in the film, they want him to steer clear.
The dying killer claims not to have killed Anderson. Daley, killed near the end of the novel, is found dead only twenty minutes into the screen version. Hardinge is not Claire’s lover but her brother-in-law. Michaels is still head forester, one of the few characters essentially unchanged. The missing woman has no family in this rendition. The father developed the pictures, not the son, who turns over the pictures rather than having them provided by his mother. Mrs. Michaels, who in the book was Karen and therefore knew the other four conspirators, does not know who Daley is, or was, so presumably that part of the motive was also tossed.
It’s Lewis, not Morse, who figures out where the building in the photograph is. MacBryde is a masseur rather than a pornographer. Myton was a doctor, not a cameraman, although MacBryde – who doesn’t go on the lam this time – admits that he and Myton took suggestive photographs of Karen before she disappeared. Hardinge also admits having been present at that session. The mistaken theory that Myton killed Karen survives reasonably intact, as does the discovery of his body. The tension between Morse and Lewis is played up a great deal and it’s one of the few new touches that works. Philip Daley is arrested for killing his father, rather than committing suicide.
The end is a gratuitous piece of melodrama. Lewis discovers that the Michaels were covering up Myton’s death and thinks the husband is responsible, but it’s the wife. Morse arrives in time to save his life. Karen is turned into a homicidal maniac, child of a sexually abusive father, who shoots her husband without blinking and is prepared to kill Lewis as well. An absolutely stupid ending to a half assed adaptation.
Morse's next cas was The Daughters of Cain (1994). We are introduced in short order to Kevin Costyn, a violence prone juvenile, Julia Stevens, a discouraged teacher, and Felix McClure, a professor who makes occasional use of prostitutes. McClure was, Morse discovers, concerned about the death of Matthew Rodaway, a student who threw himself from a window, possibly because of his use of drugs. McClure may also have been romantically involved with Rodway’s mother. The two strains of story are linked because Brooks, the maintenance man who may have provided the drugs to Rodway, is married to the woman who does Julia Steven’s housekeeping. Julia, incidentally, appears to be having an affair with Costyn, and she is also terminally ill.
Brenda Brooks is a battered wife with an obvious motive for murdering her husband, as does his stepdaughter whom he sexually abused when she was a child. Brenda tells all to Julia Stevens – including the fact that her husband came home drenched in blood one night - while Morse finds out that McClure recommended Ted Brooks for his present job. The prostitute whom McClure patronized, Ellie Smith, turns out to have also had sex with Rodway, according to his ex-roommate, Ashley Davies, who is also involved with Smith. And as if we didn’t have enough connections, we discover that Ellie is in fact Brenda Brooks daughter, the one who was molested. Stevens has hired to do something for her, presumably the murder of Brooks, for which purpose he steals a knife from a museum. Brooks reportedly disappears at a time when his wife and Stevens have an alibi, but Morse concludes that he was already dead, his body disposed of, and that the theft of the knife was an attempt at misdirection.
This was an unusual novel in the series because we know almost from the outset that Brooks murdered McClure, although his motive isn’t obvious. We also know that Stevens and Brenda Brooks, possibly in collaboration with Ellie Smith, murdered Brooks with some sort of assistance, perhaps after the fact, from Costyn. Brooks’ body is eventually found floating in the river, but to Morse’s consternation, the knife in his back is the one stolen from the museum, which apparently invalidates his theory that the women killed him prior to its theft. There are enough twists in the closing chapters to hold our attention.
McClure is still alive at the beginning of the film version, but the relationship between Brenda and Ted Brooks, and Julia Stevens’ illness are intact. The murder takes place and Brooks has his heart attack, with only slight variations from the book. The daughter, Kay Brooks, is a rather higher class prostitute, apparently not involved with McClure sexually. Nor was she sexually assaulted by Ted Brooks, although he did hit her. Stevens comes across as considerably less clever and the scene in which she insists she doesn’t know the daughter is both implausible and unnecessary. Lewis comes across as smarter than in the books, and his early suspicion about the missing knife gives away too much.
The murder method employed in Death Is Now My Neighbor (1996) was startlingly similar to the one used in a Rhys Bowen mystery I’d read just a couple of days earlier. The story opens by introducing us to several characters, chief of whom are Julian Storrs and Denis Cornford, both professors at Oxford vying for a promotion to the post of a retiring don. They are married respectively to Angela and Shelly. Storrs is, we know, a patient at a confidential clinic and was seeing Dr. Robert Turnbull, who recently died in an automobile accident. We also meet Dawn Charles, who works at the clinic, and Sir Clixby Bream, the soon to be retired academic. Shelly Cornford has been known to flirt with Julian Storrs.
Storrs is having an affair with Rachel James, who is found shot dead at her breakfast in her apartment. Her next door neighbor is Geoffrey Owens, a journalist, who has seen her with Storrs. Shelly Cornford is having an affair with Clixby Bream in order to influence him to support her husband, while Angela Storrs is considering a malicious whispering campaign designed to blacken Shelly’s reputation and thereby her husband’s prospects. Morse finds a photograph of the dead woman with an unidentified man, whom we believe to be Storrs. Initially he suspects Owens, although it would involve a difficult bit of timing and the probable use of a confederate.
Morse then notices that the houses were numbered without number 13, and that Owens wears a pony tail very similar to the one sported by James. That suggests to him that Owens was the real target and that James was shot in error. He arranges to burglarize Owens’ house and confirms that Owens was blackmailing several people, and that he knew Storrs had terminal cancer and was therefore disqualified from competing for the promotion his wife was so intent upon. Angela also has a sordid past, as a prostitute.
The theory that Owens was the actual target is supported by his subsequent murder, which Morse might have prevented had he not been hospitalized, his drinking and smoking catching up to him for the second time in his career. Several suspects in the first murder have alibis for the second, and there are variations that also make Morse posit the possibility that two murderers are involving, though both used the same pistol. He also suggests that they look more closely at Della Cecil, a neighbor who confirmed some of the times of coming and goings at the time of the murder. Owens was blackmailing someone with the initials “DC” whom we assumed was Cornford, perhaps incorrectly.
This reminded me that Dawn Charles, who worked at the medical clinic, had made a brief appearance early in the novel and that she would have had access to the medical report concerning Storrs. Morse also suggests that James may have threatened to expose Owens, stirring things up even further. Shelly Cornford commits suicide when her husband finds out about her affair with Bream. The resolution is satisfactory but rather low key. Although there’s one murderer, two others were complicit in the crime, which I generally consider a mild form of cheating. The method for obscuring things was pretty close to what I had guessed. Dexter reveals Morse’s first name at last: Endeavour.
The film version opens with thankfully view variations, mostly inconsequential. Shelly becomes one of Cornford’s students, whom he married to the dismay of some of his fellows. Morse learns of the dead woman’s affair with Storrs earlier than in the book and the two murders are much closer together, but both of these are reasonable variations. We get a hint that Angela Storrs is being blackmailed early as well, which I thought revealed too much too soon. There’s also animosity between Della and Owens, which eliminates Morse’s early, incorrect theory of their collaboration on the murder.
A major change is the introduction of a grown daughter for the Storrs, whom I immediately suspected was meant to replace Dawn Charles, which meant that Julian’s fatal illness was dropped. I might have objected to this more except that this particular subplot did not seem to me to contribute much to the original story. Another alteration is that Shelly doesn’t approach Bream; he pressures her for sex, which she gives in to in a not entirely convincing scenario, because he wants revenge for Dennis having cuckolded him – also not in the book. The subterfuge by which the Storrs alibi each other is necessarily more obvious when shown on the screen, which rather gives things away. Morse’s burglary of Owens apartment is unnecessary and he finds the blackmail notes after Owens has been killed, which is a bit of a problem because why didn’t the killer take the notes after killing Owens. We also have a new subplot – Lewis and his son – the latter of whom does not appear in any of the books until the last.
Angela’s past is changed. Instead of being an ex-prostitute, she’s a murderer who got away with it, changed her name, and married Storrs. Shelly is accidentally killed rather than commit suicide in another very implausible sequence. The rest of the story plays out fairly close to the original, with adjustments for the changes. Most of the alterations are insignificant or actually help simplify things, and some are the usual efforts to avoid the sordid elements in the novels. Although I didn’t think this was one of the better of the movies, in part that’s because the nature of the mystery makes it difficult to conceal the truth, but the screenplay makes it even easier to figure out what really happened.
Morse’s last book length adventure was The Remorseful Day (1999), in which he’s coerced into working on a cold case, a woman beaten to death in her apartment. Someone has recently been making provocatively calls regarding the case and his boss is convinced it isn’t a hoax. The woman was Yvonne Harrison, married to Frank, mother of Sarah and Simon, both adults. We know that she made a pornographic film, apparently with the consent of her husband. Frank has a solid alibi, and says that he received a call indicating that his wife was in trouble, rushed home, and found her dead. The anonymous tipster also refers to a convict being released on a particularly day, referring to Harry Repp, although we know that before the police do, who has a lover named Deborah Richardson.
Repp, who was in jail for receiving stolen goods, eludes surveillance upon his release from prison, and promptly disappears. Morse, whom Lewis suspects was intimate with the murdered woman, believes that Repp wrote the anonymous letters so that the police would be watching him upon his release, and that having lost him, they missed preventing his murder. But when a body turns up, it’s not Repp after all. It’s a man named Flynn, who drove Frank Harrison to his home on the night of the murder, and who provided his alibi. Repp’s body shows up a short time later, stuck in the trunk of a stolen car.
Midway through the book, Morse expresses the theory that three men – Flynn, Repp, and a handyman named Barron – were blackmailing the killer. Although he doesn’t suggest the killer’s name, the implication is that it was her husband. Barron had probably just had sex with her, Repp was burglarizing the building, and Flynn had driven Frank to the building. But his theory that there was a falling out among the blackmailers is blown when Barron is also murdered. Dexter has made no secret of the fact that there is some kind of conspiracy within the dead woman’s family, and I was suspicious of son Simon with no real basis. On the other hand, we rapidly run out of suspects. But Dexter suggests a coincidence to stir things, a believable one; Barron’s accident may have been an accident, not foul play.
Once again, nearly everyone is lying and there are connections among the various characters which Morse slowly ferrets out. Flynn new Simon Harrison. One of the customers of a tavern keeper who had also slept with the dead woman is the brother of the boy who claims to have accidentally knocked Barron off a ladder. The boys are probably the result of her affair with Frank Harrison. There are a few mild reversals before everything is wound up. And wound up it is. Morse, never in good health, dies near the end of the story, putting an obvious end to the series. His boss, Strange, retires. It’s a solid book, if not the best in the series, and the level of quality is extraordinarily high throughout despite the occasional cheats.
The screen version shows us some things we probably shouldn't have known until later, the burglar's presence and motive in particular. Morse is on the scene to investigate, not picking it up after it became a close case, although almost a year passes within the first few minutes. Both of these are reasonable adjustments. Most of the other plot elements remain unchanged though shuffled around slightly, including Strange's affair with the dead woman and, of course, Morse's fatal illness. This was one of the most loyal of the adaptations, using even a number of inconsequential details from the book. The two illegitimate sons are the most obvious missing element but their presence was inconsequential and only added another level of complication not necessary to the core story.
Dexter also wrote one collection of short stories, Morse’s Greatest Mystery (1993). In the opening story, “As Good as Gold”, Morse gets sucked into an effort to fabricate evidence to replace genuine evidence that was lost. Okay, but not much of a story. The title story is a very short bit in which Morse clandestinely replaces stolen charity funds when it becomes obvious that he cannot solve the case. “Evans Tries an O-Level” is a non-Morse story about an ingenious prison break. “Dead As a Dodo” is very minor, a bit about concealed identities during World War II, which Morse unravels almost by magic. Not much story to it. “At the Lulu-Bar Motel” is another minor piece – not a Morse story – about gambling and trickery. Morse does appear in “Neighbourhood Watch” only to be fooled quite nicely in a burglary scheme. “A Case of Mis-Identity” is a far above average Sherlock Holmes story. Morse interprets some unlikely clues to a murder in “The Inside Story”, an average story. Two of the remaining three stories are very minor and do not involve Morse. He’s back in “The Last Call”, investigating an accidental death that just barely headed off a murder.
It is quite evident that Dexter was much more at home at novel length. Morse is a shadow of his usual self in the shorts, which are often little more than vignettes. His novels are, without exception, superior detective stories and The Riddle of the Third Mile in particular is a classic of the genre. Dexter retired from writing in 1999. He made cameo appearances in several of the movie versions of his novels