Top positive review
Intriguing mystery with a Poirot-style denouement
on 1 July 2016
This is a very self-contained story that centres on members of an American group who are travelling around England on an exclusive tour visiting places of historical and artistic significance, and those responsible for the Oxford part of their trip.
As is not uncommon, Morse and Lewis do not appear at the beginning. Rather we are introduced to the tour leader, John Ashendon, the curator of the Ashmolean Museum, Dr. Theodore Kemp, and the events organiser for the university, Sheila Williams. The latter have been having an affair for some time but Kemp now has his eye on someone else. The Americans include several retired couples, including Laura and Eddie Stratton, and the very opinionated Janet Roscoe the bane of other group members, their hosts and hotel staff. As ever, all of these characters are hiding secrets and several are involved with one another.
Laura Stratton has brought back to Oxford the ‘Wolvergate Tongue’, part of a Saxon belt buckle that was part of the estate of her first husband. She intends to present this to the Ashmolean who hold the other part of the buckle. Laura and Kemp have been communicating about this and the latter is relishing the publicity. Unfortunately before the presentation can be made the tongue is stolen and Laura is found dead, apparently following a heart attack. Enter Morse and Lewis. Subsequently one of the main characters is found dead.
Dexter perfectly describes Morse’s manner of detection [‘One of the most extraordinary things about the man’s mind was that any check, any set-back, to some sweet hypothesis, far from dismaying him, seemed immediately to prompt some second hypothesis that soon appeared sweeter than the first.’] and the frustration that Lewis feels as a result.
An initial difficulty with the story is the author’s need to introduce and describe a number of characters, and whilst he is able to do this for his English characters there is insufficient space to do this equally well for the Americans. As a consequence when these enter the story at different stages it is sometimes difficult to remember their backstories and motivations. From time to time the author’s transcription of American accents jars; even in 1991 it was far from humourous.
At this point in their relationship the characters of Lewis and Morse are very well defined but the latter’s insensitivity towards his junior colleague is still difficult to take. One wants to give Morse a shake and tell him just how badly he is behaving towards a colleague who holds him in such high regard, positively worshipping his deductive abilities. Part of Morse’s attitude may result from Lewis generally being the person who brings evidence that contradicts and destroys his current theory and sends him, and the reader, back to reconsider the case from a different perspective.
The hard slog of detection is always directed towards Lewis except when it might involve interviewing women that he finds attractive. At the end of this story he gets his comeuppance. Increasingly one seems some very dark and disturbed aspects in the detective’s overall character.
The relationship between Morse and Max, the pathologist, is based on mutual respect and Dexter injects a lot of barbed humour into their exchanges that are rather more extended than is usually the case. Elsewhere the humour is occasionally rather too contrived [Morse suggests that a serial philanderer’s motto is ‘amo amas amat it again’].
The final part of the book sets up and delivers a Poirot-style confrontation of the killer in a room full of avid listeners. Dexter continues to employ his very satisfying trait of preceding each chapter by a relevant literary quotation.
I read that this novel was developed from an episode of the TV series Inspector Morse, not written by Colin Dexter. Something must have appealed to the author for him to use it as the basis for the ninth book in the series.