When Sir Clicksby Breen, at age 69, decides to retire as Master of Lonsdale College, Oxford, two in-house candidates become the frontrunners to succeed him. In both cases, their wives are at least as interested in acquiring the title of "Lady," which comes with the appointment, as their husbands are in becoming Master, and in both cases the wives have something in their backgrounds to hide.
In this somewhat fragmented mystery in which the action evolves on parallel tracks, Inspector Morse is called to investigate the murder of a young woman, Rachel James, in what appears to have been a case of mistaken identity. She is the next door neighbor of Geoffrey Owens, a reporter who dabbles in blackmail, and many people have reason to want him dead, including both of the Oxford dons and/or their wives.
Filled with red herrings and digressions, the mystery follows the life of the dons, the Master, their wives, reporter/blackmailer Geoffrey Owens, a neighbor who may be providing Owens with an alibi, and even the madam of a house of ill repute. The finicky and grammatically precise Inspector Morse, accompanied by his more relaxed and less educated assistant, Sgt. Lewis, play off each other to provide some moments of good humor, and the reader comes to know Morse in new ways--in his increasing fondness for drink and in his new diagnosis of diabetes. He also becomes attracted to a new woman.
Though the mystery is entertaining, it is less polished than some others in this series. With a large cast of characters to develop, Dexter sometimes allows the overlaps and complexities of the characters' relationships to obscure the issue of who murdered Rachel James in her home and why, and when a second murder occurs later in the novel, the case becomes particularly complex, since the murdered person has been one of the suspects in Rachel's murder. The ending, which ties up all the loose ends, comes abruptly, and the motivation of the murderer is not as strong as it is in some of Morse's other cases. An excellent mystery, but not one of Morse's best. n Mary Whipple