A 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…