Book Reviews

The Wench is Dead (Inspector Morse #8) by Colin Dexter

Who can resist a story within a story? This is the 8th instalment in the Inspector Morse series, but it didn’t matter a jot that I haven’t read the previous books.

Morse finds himself bed bound in hospital after surgery for a perforated ulcer. To while away the time he reads an account of the murder of a young woman in 1859, her body found in a stretch of the Oxford Canal, and the conviction of two men who were subsequently hanged for the crime. He becomes convinced that the two men were, in fact, innocent of the murder of Joanna Franks. Although the crime ‘was done a long time ago, [ ] and done ill’, Morse feels duty-bound to uncover the truth.

He relies on the ever reliable Sergeant Lewis to do much of the legwork of his investigation, and is also ably assisted by Christine Greenaway, a librarian at The Bodleian, whose father is in the same ward as Morse. It’s a treat to read the dialogue between Morse and Lewis, and to see Morse realise what a treasure Lewis is to him, both as a colleague and as a friend.

My only complaint about this book is the constant referencing to all the very attractive (younger) women who seem to find Morse totally irresistible. Perhaps some wishful thinking on the author’s behalf? Even the crusty, Scottish ward matron falls under his spell (apparently).

But there is an undercurrent of sadness to Morse: he refers to being relieved that he doesn’t have to buy anyone a gift for Christmas, and received only a handful of Christmas cards. Christine Greenaway notes that ‘his eyes had held hers for a few seconds, but she had been conscious neither of their blueness nor of their authority: only their melancholy and their vulnerability’.

When this book was released, the mystery surrounding Morse’s first name was still that: a mystery, and it is referred to here, when he is asked what the ‘E’ stands for; his response is, as always ‘everyone calls me Morse’. It’s like being ‘in on the joke’, now that we all know what his first name is!

Morse’s dogged persistence in finding the truth results in an unexpected conclusion, one which I did not see coming. This is a very clever book, and it deserved winning the British Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger Award, for the best Crime novel of the year, in 1989.

Reviewed by Gaby Meares
Murder on a Monday Reading Group

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The Wench is Dead (Inspector Morse #8) by Colin Dexter

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