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 face – 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’s an unusual introduction to the literary Morse – nearly all of the detective action takes place from Morse’s hospital bed, where he lies recuperating from 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 is found drowned in the Oxford Canal whilst travelling to meet her husband in London. Two of the drunken and lustful boatmen are found guilt of killing her and executed, while a third is shipped off to Australia following a last-minute pardon.
But something does not gel for Morse, who reads about the case in a small booklet given to him in hospital. Bored and harassed by the nursing staff, he sets his great mind to work to solve the ancient crime, aided by his dutiful sidekick, Detective Lewis.
It’s wonderful writing full of Morse’s wit, humour and great intellect with Dexter skillfully shifting the story between the murky waters of the Oxford Canal in 1859, as the boat carrying Joanna Frank takes her to her doom and Morse propped up in his hospital bed pondering the possibilities:
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.