Last Bus To Woodstock by Colin Dexter

Last BusA dark rainy night in North Oxford and Sylvia Kaye and her friend are waiting impatiently for the last bus to (guess where?) Woodstock. Deciding to hitch instead, a witness sees them get into a car and be driven away. Later that night, Sylvia is found in the car park of The Black Prince, a pub a little further down the road, an apparent victim of a sex crime. But Inspector Morse thinks there’s more to it than that.

Unable to identify Sylvia’s mystery friend, his attention turns to her place of work and to the fellows of Lonsdale College. A coded message catches his eye, but so does a young nurse tangentially involved in the case. As he becomes more and more convinced of the identity of the unknown girl but unable to prove it, Morse finds himself risking his new partnership with Detective Sergeant Lewis with his stubborn refusal to accept the evidence before him.

Colin Dexter started writing this, the first Inspector Morse book, in 1972 and it was published in 1975 – thirteen years before the rather sanitized version (not a bad thing – see later) appeared on our television screens in the second series of Inspector Morse.

Dexter has a very distinctive writing style – for example, ” “We’d better have a little chat, you and me,” said Morse ungrammatically.” – and I’m sure it’s not to everyone’s tastes. It makes it stand out to me – as you may know, Dexter is a crossword setter, so this is probably due to his massive vocabulary. He also was capable of working out a careful puzzle plot with clues to point the reader in the right (or more often, the wrong) direction. It’s notable in the first Morse books – up to, I’d say, The Secret of Annexe 5B or possibly The Jewel That Was Ours – the mystery was the most important element, but as the TV series thrived, the character of Morse became more important and the plot less so. Which was a real shame, as I really enjoyed the earlier books.

What I had forgotten (or to my shame, hadn’t noticed) the first time through is how nasty parts of this book are. A conversation between some stereotypical Oxford dons concerning rape – “I’ve always been a bit dubious about this rape business” – is frankly horrible. The fact that the dons are not portrayed as being in the wrong is inexcusable. Add in a later line from Morse himself showing a complete lack of understanding – “Raping isn’t easy they tell me if the lady isn’t too willing” and the whole thing shows a lack of awareness and empathy that makes the book uncomfortable reading in places. And that’s before we get to the stuff about the pervert, or the fact that almost all of the male characters (Lewis being the obvious exception) seemingly being at the mercy of their hormones.

For the most part, this is a very enjoyable book –  spoilt for me by the issue above. Less sensitive people might not have an issue with this, and I can’t deny that it is a clever, well-clued and yet deceptively simple mystery. For the most part, it’s Highly Recommended. But with reservations about bits of it…

 

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13 comments

  1. Yes, it is a clever, well-clued mystery despite the sordidness. However, the TV episode is much sanitised as well as simplified.
    Morse is very unlucky in his love affair here. 🙂

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  2. The seedier aspects were sensibly removed from the TV version, though in my reading I always felt that Dexter was in fact being critical of this point of view and not endorsing it. In a way it balances out, the often and artificial and frankly preposterous (but very clever) plots – or I think is at least meant to. It’s easy to see why ANNEXE 3 was never adapted with its frankly barmy minstrel motif 🙂

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    • Yeah I read Annexe 3 for the impossible crime and the fact it’s not been adapted and it’s nuts! (It’s also got a Carr Red Widow Murder thing going on – by the time all the twists have been unravelled, the murderer’s plan doesn’t make any sense at all.)

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    • I’m drawing a blank at Annexe 3 – maybe I need to re-read that one next.

      I don’t think for a moment that Dexter is endorsing the point of view, but I found it notable that it goes unchallenged or even that people (including Morse) would say such things, with intent or not, in the first place. The dons clearly think that rape is something that can be joked about – Morse’s statement could (possibly) be put down to careless phrasing.

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      • i think it tells you a lot about the time it was written and the people being presented, not necessarily much about Dexter. When you say such things are inexcusable, well, context does provide a rationale and I think, 40 years hence, one has to acknowledge that (especially as Mr Dexter is still with us after all). Just read a book from the mid 80s by Ed McBain that has a big plot about tape and violence against women which, despite all the best of liberal intentions from the author, still to me felt exploitative …

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      • A point well made. But I can only comment about how it makes me feel reading it now. I fully expect that if I was to ask Mr Dexter about it, then he wouldn’t have written such bits these days. I don’t believe for a second that he is endorsing the sentiments. When I first read the book (1990ish), they completely went un-noticed by the younger me. It’s a sign of both modern times and the time that the book was written. But it can’t be ignored that the sections seem deeply inappropriate nowadays.

        Having said that (and I don’t mean Mr Dexter here) it is inexcusable that a crime like rape was ever discussed in such a way. Although sad to say, I’m sure there are still people who would talk about it in the same way in this day and age.

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  3. Yeah I’m not a huge fan of Dexter, mainly because of the ostentatious language you mention and how he uses it. I’m certainly not against erudition (how could I be, when Michael Innes is my favourite detective writer?), but with Dexter it always seems a bit gratuitous. We get it! You love crosswords! So do I! Now stop giving all your characters preposterous lines to prove it.

    Given your previous review, I think it’s illuminating to compare Dexter to Hill on this point. Hill also clearly has a deep love of language (Exhibit A: Dialogues of the Dead), but I think he employs it in his novels in a much more interesting way.

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    • I’m toying with a Police Procedural season on the blog, although it seems I’m partway through one already. The last three novel reviews were all police books, differentiated in part by the language – straightforward, naturally humourous and convoluted in that order – after tomorrow’s post (still catching up with the reviews from holiday) we’ll have one that’s closer in tone to Hill than anything else and one that is, to be honest, a bit barmy. Stay tuned.

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