RogerBW's Blog

Last Bus to Woodstock, Colin Dexter 18 November 2016

1975 detective fiction; first of Dexter's novels of Inspector Morse. Two young women wait for the bus out of Oxford one night; one goes to hitch a ride, and her dead body is found the next day.

Attitudes to women, even from the "good guys" and especially from the narrator, are archaic even for the era; this feels sometimes like a tawdry novel of the 1960s in which everyone is lying about sleeping with everyone else (of the opposite sex, of course), dragged into the 1970s by making everything a few shades darker. It's repeatedly suggested that rape is something that most women would enjoy and that would be good for them; nobody seriously argues with this proposition, even the few women who get a voice at all. The women are all drawn in various colours of nasty, while all the men are portrayed as sympathetic, even the porn addict and the bccbeghavfgvp arpebcuvyvnp.

It's all rather a shame, because the actual puzzle story of investigation and detection is quite good. Morse doesn't tell much of what's going through his mind, and actively misleads Sergeant Lewis apparently for no other reason than to show off at the end, but the story plays fair and gives you all the necessary information – even though much of that comes in conversations between other people while Morse is absent, rather than from Morse's own experience. The narrative also goes to a great deal of trouble to tell you what you're not being given, like the content of quite a few of Morse's own conversations, so there's no real sense of competition with the detective except in the strict sense of working it out before the Big Revelation; the reader is effectively working with a parallel set of clues.

Morse himself is less than convincing here. Rather than being a portrayal of a man with interests, he's a block to fill the policeman-shaped hole in the story, with an enthusiasm for opera pasted on to try to give him a bit of individuality; on the other hand his interest in crosswords is used effectively in the approach he takes to decoding a cryptic note. Falling for a suspect is obviously unprofessional, but it also smacks of desperation. Lewis is there just to give him a background against which to shine. I suspect both characters may develop more in later books.

There's too much gratuitous nastiness for my taste (it was very much watered down for the television version in 1988), but I gather the series improves. I read this for Past Offences' 1975 month. Followed by Last Seen Wearing.

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  1. Posted by Owen Smith at 02:59pm on 18 November 2016

    I enjoyed the multiple Morse TV series immensely. Clearly so did many viewers since it spawned a sequel (Lewis) and a prequel (Endeavour) which are both still running. And the treatment of women was never as bad as you describe. I suspect the TV series with the late great John Thaw is so definitive for me I wouldn't be happy with a different portrayal.

  2. Posted by J F Norris at 05:05pm on 18 November 2016

    Many of the TV episodes were largely re-written and differ drastically from the original books. Huge difference in the identity of the killer and the motive in the TV version of book 2 LAST SEEN WEARING and the novel which I liked much better. So far it's the only Morse book I've read. I'm familiar with some of the last episodes we which are not at all based on the books. Not sure I'll go back to read this first one what with all the misogyny and rape nonsense you mention above.

  3. Posted by Phil Masters at 05:39pm on 18 November 2016

    It was pretty well known that the TV series changed stuff from the books at the adaptor's whim - Lewis becomes a completely different character, just for a start - and I suspect that some things that were dated or just a bit unappealing in Dexter's assumptions were the first to be changed.

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