Top critical review
What bears do in the woods
on 3 May 2015
Have you ever been reading a book and thought “I wonder what this would be like if the ostensible main character was reduced to secondary status by the inclusion of an overwhelming number of scenes involving unimportant characters and events”? Or perhaps you’ve caught yourself, in stray moments, cogitating “Well, this is all fine but what we really need is a diary entry from an unattributed source, repeated as a device three or so times and ultimately dropped before 10% of the way into the book which will end up being written by a less than tertiary character in the narrative and referring to events that have absolutely no bearing on the plot”? If so, Colin Dexter has just the book for you: it’s called The Way Through the Woods and is one of the later entries in what I’m increasingly starting to realise is the massively over-hyped Inspector Morse series.
Oh, I know, you loved John Thaw. Everyone loved John Thaw, he was awesome. That doesn’t change the fact that Dexter’s source novels are the most egregious example of diminishing returns you could ever encounter. Here, everyone seems to have some mysterious reason for acting suspiciously – it’s like bad Hammer horror, with everyone peering ominously out of windows and wracking themselves over a guilt the source of which is never actually mentioned – and practically every character gets several chapters to just mull around and be sort of mysterious, or (if female, regardless of age or purpose in the plot) to moon over the raging sex panther that Dexter evidently imagines Morse himself to be.
It’s deeply awful, and a long way from the subtleties of, say, The Wench is Dead (which at least deserved the Gold Dagger it won...how this ever won one is beyond me, surely 1992 wasn’t that fallow a year). The first quarter of the book provides practically nothing that couldn’t have been communicated in three pages with Morse coming back from holiday, and then the plot sort of meanders pointlessly without any real structure as Morse and Lewis blunder into a series of lucky coincidences. A series of women dwell on their desire to jump Morse’s bones, the occasional development is wrung out of the supporting cast after much Looming and Acting Strangely and then it sort of finishes. And don’t even get me started on the source of the poem, surely the least surprising reveal since...oh, I don’t even care, pick your own example.
I kind of enjoyed the earlier books – Dexter is an astoundingly undisciplined writer, but it was charming in its own way – but the regression he undergoes as the series progresses is terrible. I finished The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn hugely confused as to what had actually happened but reasonably sure I had enjoyed it, but The Daughters of Cain was practically unbearable, burying a single good idea in 400 pages of crud. TWTtW doesn’t even have that – Morse acts like an arse towards the original investigating officers, showing off how perceptive and brilliant he is but failing to forward their investigation one bit seemingly just so he can spring a surprise on the reader about a third of the way in. What a pillock, frankly.
However, millions will disagree with me. This is just my lone shout in the hurricane of praise, because I feel it’s needed!