In any long literary series there will be variation in quality. Nevertheless, it is disappointing when the dip is as great as in this sixth book, almost the midpoint of Colin Dexter’s Morse and Lewis series. Any new reader should most certainly not judge the author’s abilities by this story.
Set in Oxford and London, the plot has its origins in North Africa in WWII. Following this opening chapter, the book is divided into three parts – presented as ‘miles’ according to St Matthew’s text ‘And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain’.
Most unusually, one can feel the author struggling to maintain thematic control over a book that continually threatens to escape in all directions. Even such quintessential elements as Morse’s crossword solving, hate of inspecting dead bodies, of which there are many, long silences and gazing out of windows, and his attraction to younger women are all handled in a surprisingly unsubtle manner, whilst the plot, or plots, are confusing. Dexter introduces a great many poorly-described characters, including multiple brothers and academics, and it is hard to keep track of them all. This is particularly unfortunate as the conclusion depends on remembering who’s who and who went where.
The investigation begins with the disappearance of an Oxford bachelor, Dr O. M. A. Browne-Smith [anagram alert], an English don from Lonsdale College, who goes missing after receiving an anonymous invitation to visit a Soho sex club. Unusually, we follow him on the first part of this journey and so for much of the story are one step ahead of the police. When a mutilated corpse, missing its head, legs and an arm is hauled out of a river, expectations that it is the missing don are high, and get higher when it is found to be wearing his suit. Other bodies follow, including one in a cupboard. Morse is particularly tetchy, explainable only in part by a severely-infected tooth, and only establishes the truth after a great many false starts.
The investigation proceeds as normal, with Morse cogitating and Lewis carrying out the hard work, and many rivalries within Lonsdale College are revealed. One of the more interesting features for Morse lovers the is information that Dexter divulges about Morse’s early life, including his time at Lonsdale College and an early and very significant love affair. The source of Morse’s pedantry about language and grammar is also revealed.
Written more than 30 years ago, this story is very much of its time, being steeped in riddles and puzzles of all kind. Today these seem constantly to interrupt the flow of the narrative, and detract from rather than add to its impact. Chapters are introduced by a sentence describing the action to be described [as in ‘Wherein such diverse activities as dentistry, crossword-solving, and pike-angling make their appropriate contributions to Morse's view of things.’], itself a throwback to an earlier age.
This is a book more for fans of the author and his main characters than for the general reader.