Last Bus to Woodstock by Colin Dexter
23 May, 2013
Aaah, Inspector Morse. I’ve only come to appreciate Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse relatively recently. I used to catch an episode of the eponymous tv series on and off but only really got into Dexter’s world after the death of Morse and when his side-kick Lewis took over with the dashing Hathaway played by Lawrence Fox. And then they decided to film Endeavour, a new crime series depicting a young Morse just starting out in the Force. I never really understood why so many people were obsessed with Morse. He was grumpy, too clever and difficult and stood out from the rest of the police. But maybe that’s why. Maybe we are a little in love with the lone wolf. It speaks to the part of us that can’t connect with others. But I can’t seem to get enough of the young Morse and so I decided that it was time to read the books, starting with the first in the series, Last Bus to Woodstock.
When a young, attractive blonde is found raped and murdered at the back of a pub in Woodstock just outside Oxford, Inspector Lewis is called in to work with the eccentric Chief Inspector Morse. The girl was last seen with a female companion eschewing the bus to Woodstock and hitching a ride from a red car. As Lewis and Morse search for the girl’s companion, they soon find themselves embroiled in a web of lies from the girl’s workplace to the fictitious Londsdale College which they must carefully untangle before the murderer slips through their fingers. Can they unmask the murderer who seems diabolically clever and will Lewis and Morse’s fragile partnership survive their first case together?
Published in 1975, Morse’s first case is certainly a product of its time. The casual sexism, ordinary prejudices, it’s all there. However, there is something vital pulsing through Dexter’s first novel and it all hinges on the character of Morse. There is nothing staid or condescending about Morse. Here is a protagonist who is a living, thinking and feeling man. I was surprised at how much emotion Dexter imbues in the character of Morse. Yes, he’s eccentric, he likes to drink (a little too much), he loves listening to Wagner and is a dab hand at cryptic crosswords. But there is something about him that makes you want to know more about this man. In Last Bus to Woodstock, Morse is probably in his late thirties or early forties, single, workaholic and with a brain that doesn’t rest. He loves women and is very flirty and doesn’t much like following the rules. But he does it with such panache that you don’t mind it so much.
The mystery itself is pretty well plotted although I felt the twist was a little too forced. What I really liked was how well it tied in with the new series of Endeavour. You can see the writers of the new series have done their research. There was something very fresh and immediate about Dexter’s writing style and it also provided a good snapshot of what life must have been like in 1970s Oxford, the ordinary lives of working people, the bored housewives, the everyday ennui and sexual escapades. I have to admit I was a little surprised by how much sex, or the inference of sex, there was in the novel but put it down to the ’70s. One thing that did disturb me was the definition of rape that was used by characters in the book, something which I’m glad to say is probably no longer acceptable in modern publishing. However, Dexter’s treatment of women is as sympathetic as his treatment of men and I couldn’t really fault him. I enjoyed reading this book and I’m hoping to work my way through the series.
Are you a Morse fan? Have you read the books or watched the TV series? Which is your favourite book and why do you like him so much?