One of the criticisms of Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse series, written between 1975-99, is its rather stereotypical treatment of its female characters. This was never more justified than in ‘The Way Through the Woods’, 1993. In his next book from 1994, Dexter placed three remarkable women, each quite remarkable but very different, at its centre. In addition he introduces Morse and Lewis early on, rather than making the reader wait for their appearance.
The women are each very different - Julia Stevens is a rather disillusioned secondary school teacher; Brenda Brooks, her cleaning lady, is in an abusive relationship with her husband, Ted, a cleaner at an Oxford college, whilst the third woman, Ellie Smith, is much younger and working as a prostitute when the reader first meets her.
The violent event that opens the book is the stabbing of an Ancient History don, Dr Felix McClure, whose limited reputation was based on his book ‘The Great Plague at Athens: Its Effect on the Course and Conduct of the Peloponnesian War’ [‘A long title. A long work.’]
The untimely death of a colleague’s wife brings Morse and Lewis into this investigation and they quickly link McClure to the suicide of a student, drug-taking and the departure of Ted Brooks from the college. As is typical of Dexter’s books, Morse sets up a series of hypotheses that come crashing down when further evidence is found, often by the hardworking Lewis. Gradually the links between the three women emerge but then Ted Brooks disappears.
The background to this book involves education [from the Oxford élite to class 5C of Procter Memorial School] and class [highlighted in the dialogue between the main characters], Morse’s ill-health and debilitating loneliness, exacerbated by the women that he meets and feels attracted to. As the policeman’s weaknesses are revealed it becomes rather less surprising that they are attracted to him. This novel is also about the complexities of deep friendships between males and between females, and the qualitative differences between them.
The backgrounds of the three main female characters are very well constructed and sympathetically revealed; each has experienced great difficulty but each comes across as truly convincing. The final pages being especially haunting, even if not totally surprising. The details of the plotting are up to the author’s usual high standard [although this cannot be classified as a conventional whodunnit] and his trademark quotations that introduce each chapter, pepperings of outrageously long and obstruse words [Morse/Dexter comments that Lewis’ wife spoke in ‘anapaestic pentameters, and anapaestic hexameters’, but then she is Welsh], and clues set by a cruciverbalist [one of which is not solved until right at the end] will please regular readers of this series.
From this book onwards, the series becomes increasingly overshadowed by Morse’s declining health [failing liver and kidneys, high blood pressure and cholesterol, ulcers, diabetes….], heavy drinking and his realisation that his time on the force is coming to an end, and Lewis’ realization just how deep is his concern for his superior.
This is a very different story to the previous book, which I also rated 5*. Each story is best read in sequence to get the full flavour of the changing relationship between the two detectives.
on 1 March 2001
I am new to reading full length novels (i'm only 11) and i decided to start with this one. I can honestly say that this novels has inspired me to read. The plot is great, teh writing brilliant, the characters really interesting. I have no fault at all with this book. it is entirely thought provoking and you can totally understand the motives of the criminal(or criminals) and even feel a certain compassion for them, no you DO feel compassion for them. This book has shaped my future reading material. thank You Mr Dexter.
The Daughters of Cain has always retained a soft spot in my heart - I read it when I was about 12, it was the first "adult" book I read, and the first mystery novel. Coming back to it 17 years later, I was slightly nervous I wouldn't like it so much for some reason (I'm making my way through all the Morse novels, tripping through them with glee). I needn't have worried - even on second reading this is one of my very favourites of the series. Whilst there are elements of the plot that are convoluted, they are convoluted in a more simple way than in some Morse novels, and Dexter spends a bit more time on the psychologies of his major characters - Brenda Brooks, Julia Stevens, and Ellie Smith. To be honest, that's what I remember liking so much the first time around, that holy trinity of women who make up the main cast. And I liked it just as much the second time around. The whole novel is a rounded and satisfying portrait of various types of justice. Wonderful. Colin Dexter's style is one of the most enjoyable I've ever had the pleasure to read, and re-reading them all has been a revelatory experience - somehow, I had forgotten!
I thought I would like the Morse books - intellectual detective stories with plenty to satisfy the user. I was wrong. I hated this book, and I hated it because of the writing style. Colin Dexter writes in an extremely irritating and self-absorbed style. Every piece of narrative seems to come with a little (pointless and annoying) comment in parentheses. The whole thing feels smug and pretentious. This is compounded by the fact that the author alludes to the perpetrators of each element of the mystery in the narrative even though no evidence has yet been uncovered. Thus there is no real mystery and we just have Morse shambling along piecing together things that the reader already knows.
I just couldn't get into it and struggled to finish it. It's a shame because, in the hands of Ruth Rendell or Ian Rankin, this could be a cracking story. Instead it's a self-congratulatory and irritating book to read.