After a fitful ride on Last Bus to Woodstock I doubt I shall read anything more by Colin Dexter. Ever again. I can't remember when a book has disappointed me—angered me—as much as this first in Dexter's thirteen-book series of Inspector Morse crime novels. I admit it would be convenient to put the blame on someone other than myself for steering me there, but I can’t. Not even my crime-blogging friends, whom I’ve let persuade me to try authors I’d never heard of. Nope, not this time. I’m stuck with it. Taking a cue from Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville, it's my own damned fault.
I say this by way of cautioning readers who enjoyed the TV series based on Dexter’s characters: Inspector Morse, its spinoff sequel Inspector Lewis, and its prequel, Endeavour (which is Morse’s first name). I haven’t yet seen any of the Morse series, but I’ve watched some episodes of Lewis, and of Endeavour, and enjoyed them immensely. Ordinarily if I like a film based on a book, I’ll give the book a shake. And I’ve found more often than not the original’s even better than its screen adaptation, or at least is engaging and entertaining in its own way. This was the case with the Inspector Gently TV series. The lead character in Gently Does It, the first of Alan Hunter’s forty-six books featuring the North British detective, was quite different from the TV Gently. It took some getting used to, but I enjoyed the read. Not so with Last Bus to Woodstock, which presents Inspector Morse as an unintentional (I’m guessing) parody—something as unpleasant to imagine as, say, Adam Sandler portraying Sherlock Holmes.
|Kevin "Lewis" Whately" and John "Morse" Thaw|
I should note that while the author handled the murder mystery competently, worthy of the TV series, his detective is boring and arrogant. Morse treats his assistant, Sgt. Lewis, with such contempt I felt at times like reaching into the story and slapping the feces out of Morse. In a bar, for example, while the two are interviewing witnesses in the murder of a young woman found outside with her head bashed in, the bartender offers Lewis a beer. “He’s on duty,” Morse snaps, but accepts a drink himself.
In fact, it appears Morse is a delusional lush. Sitting in his office, “mildly drunk,” he believes he’s gaining some insight into the case. “His mind grew clearer and clearer. He thought he saw the vaguest pattern in the events of the evening of Wednesday, 29 September. No names–no idea of names, yet–but a pattern.” Yeah, right.
At another time, stuck at home recuperating from an injury to his foot from falling off a ladder, Morse bores Lewis with rambling theories about the case, not allowing Lewis to comment or question anything he says. “A quarter of an hour later a bewildered sergeant let himself out of the front door of Morse’s flat. He felt a little worried and would have felt even more so if he had been back in the bedroom at that moment to hear Morse talking to himself, and nodding occasionally whenever he particularly approved of what he heard coming from his own lips.
“‘Now my first hypothesis, ladies and gentlemen, and as I see things the most vital hypothesis of all–I shall make many, oh yes, I shall make many–is this: that the murderer is living in North Oxford...” In fact, Morse has no evidence at all for this or any of his other screwball assumptions. I found myself screaming silently at one point, and suddenly bursting out laughing, as the long-suffering Lewis, the author tells us, “wished he’d get on with it.”
Another thing I found annoying was the multiple-viewpoint narrative. We’re inside the heads of most, if not all (I didn’t keep track) of the suspects, which, I know, is a perfectly valid literary device, but for me it doesn’t work in a mystery—or at least in this mystery, as the characters are stereotypes, thus less interesting than had they remained mysteries themselves, known only through the detectives’ sensibilities. In Last Bus to Woodstock none of the characters whose heads I was allowed to enter aroused my suspicion, despite some clumsy “clues” tossed my way. This left as likely suspects the few I knew only as Morse knew them. Presumably a craftier writer could bring off having a character we feel we know revealed as a surprise in the end as the murderer, but I cannot recall an example where such was the case, other than in a straight procedural plot.
I found the setting interesting—Oxford and its academic environs. Several minor characters are academics, and we get much byplay in this milieu—credible because of Dexter’s background as a classics teacher. I bought a three-book collection with my Kindle download. Unless I experience a brain transplant or a metaphysical change of heart, I shall not be reading either of the other two.
But I do intend to borrow the public library’s Morse/Lewis DVDs. I know they’ll be good!
[For more Friday's Forgotten Books check the links on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]