Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Get on the Bus

Inspector Morse 1: Last Bus to Woodstock by Colin Dexter (1975): Before Inspector Morse became a beloved PBS franchise that would have its own acclaimed run of episodes and then two spin-off series currently on the air, it was a series of mystery novels by Colin Dexter.

This first installment shows Dexter's early brilliance in combining an American mystery trope (the hard-drinking, tarnished knight of a detective) with the enduring British trope of the detective story per: Agatha Christie or Dorothy Sayers. Detective-Inspector Morse is moody, mercurial, and the highest of all high-functioning alcoholics. He solves crimes in and around the Oxford University area, which apparently has the highest murder rate east of Detroit.

In Last Bus to Woodstock, he teams up with stoic, salt-of-the-Earth Detective-Sergeant Lewis for the first time, a match made in heaven as Lewis remains grounded and methodical even as Morse's investigation wanders all over the map. Morse, erudite and self-pitying, almost blows the case, in part by doing something that would definitely blow the case if he did it and was found out in a contemporary investigation. Lewis puts up with insults and Morse's occasionally bizarre need to keep secrets from his own partner until he's proven right. Like many self-pitying people, Morse has an enormous ego and an attendant fear of appearing to be wrong or misguided.

But Morse is also devastatingly insightful, which explains why he's stayed on the force so long. He's also a lonely bastard throughout this first novel. Dexter's portrayal of both character and British police procedure is top-notch, and the novel never less than engaging.

While it's set in the relatively recent mid-1970's, the novel gives us a mystery that simply couldn't happen today thanks to changes in society and technology. It's a murder that relies to a great extent upon the difficulty of making a truly private telephone call in Oxford circa 1975. Lend it to your kids to show them what telecommunications was like in the Oldey Timey days. Skype would scuttle the entire plot. Highly recommended.

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