It’s impossible for me to think of Inspector Morse, Colin Dexter‘s fictional middle-aged Oxford detective, with a penchant for booze, attractive but dangerous women and classical music, and not think of the late, great John Thaw, who played him so brilliantly in the acclaimed BBC television series.
And so it was John Thaw’s pensive face, with its penetrating stare, roman nose and white mop of hair, that became Morse in my head as I sat down to read The Wench is Dead.
It was the first time I had ‘read’ Inspector Morse, rather than watched him on television. (I’d picked up a hardback copy of the book for free at the East Melbourne Library and tucked into it on a holiday at Philip Island).
As my introduction to Inspector Morse the written character, I was not in the least disappointed: Morse came alive on the page as the grumpy, but brilliant sleuth.
Reading The Wench is Dead was an unusual introduction to the literary Morse – nearly all of the action in this story taking place from a hospital bed – Inspector Morse’s hospital bed to be precise where he is confined having survived a burst ulcer.
The case too is unusual to say the least involving the murder in 1859 of a married woman called Joanna Franks who was found drowned and murdered during a journey down the Oxford Canal. It comes Morses way via a small booklet given to him as a gift by the eccentric wife of a patient who has recently died.
Two of the boatmen are executed for Joanna Frank’s brutal murder, while a third is shipped off to Australia following a last-minute pardon. But something does not gel for Morse, who can’t resist putting his great detective skills to work with the help of his ever faithful sidekick, Sergeant Lewis.
It was just a little worrying, that was all…the way the dice had been loaded all the time against those drunkards, who had murdered Joanna Franks.
And then later, after some pondering and detective work by Lewis:
Almost, now, Morse felt he could put his finger on the major cause of his unease. It was all those conversations heard and duly reported…all of it was somehow wrong.
In between putting his greater detective mind to work, he finds time to charm a number of attractive nurses looking after him, manages to sneak in a few glasses of Scotch smuggled in by Lewis, despite strict hospital orders forbidding it, and of course solves the The Times Cryptic crossword.
It’s wonderful writing full of Morse’s wit, humour and great intellect with the story shifting back and forward between the murky waters of the canal in 1859, as the boat drifts slowly down toward’s Joanna Frank’s doom and Morse propped up in his hospital bed pondering the possibilities and sending Lewis off on various assignments to dig up old newspaper articles and dig around in musty Oxford archives.
The thought of drink had begun to concentrate Morse’s mind powerfully, and with great circumspection and care, Morse poured a finger of Scotch into his bedside glass, with the same amount of plain water. Wonderful!. Pity that no one would ever believe his protestations that Scotch was a necessary stimulant to his brain cells! For after a few minutes his mind was flooding with ideas – exciting ideas! – and furthermore he realised that he could begin to test one or two of his hypotheses that very evening.
The Wench is Dead, published in 1986 was the eighth out of 13 Inspector Morse books that Colin Dexter, a former grammar school teacher, wrote over a period of more than 25 years.Dexter came up with idea of Morse in 1972 while sitting at the kitchen one rainy day on a family holiday in Wales with nothing to do. He recounted this is in an interview with strandmag.com:
I went in the kitchen and locked the door and I started writing. There’d been two crime books in the guest house and I’d read one of them; I can’t remember what it was. I didn’t think I could do any better but I thought I could do almost as well. I don’t know if it was the first page or the first paragraph, but gradually a few ideas materialized.
Later on, in the same interview he talks about the traits he shared with Inspector Morse, these being: a love of classical music, especially Wagner, sensitivity to the arts, music and literature, the enjoyment of alcohol, particularly single malt Scotch and real ale, “a bit too much” and a confession to being a bit of pessimist “with not much faith in the future of the planet”.
Of those traits Dexter says he did not share with Morse were Morse’s incredible mental capacity for crime solving, Morse’s fondness for attractive but deadly women and his perennial bachelor status (Dexter was married and had children) and Morse’s meanness with money.
All of these traits make up the wonderfully complex character of Inspector Morse, who is surely one of the finest fictional detectives in modern literature ranking right up their with Sherlock Holmes, Jane Tennyson and modern greats like Luther.
Morse’s great powers of problem solving are in full display in the The Wench is Dead, a brilliant ‘whoddunnit’ cold case that is short enough to be enjoyed on a rainy afternoon, perhaps with a decent glass of Scotch and classical music – possibly Wagner – playing in the background.