|"The curse is come upon me...."|
In the quarter-century from 1975 and 1999, Colin Dexter published thirteen detective novels detailing the adventures of Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis. Most of these novels were filmed as part of the classic British police detective series Inspector Morse, which aired between 1987 and 2000. The Wench Is Dead was published in 1989 and filmed in 1998, as the penultimate Morse episode in the series.
see previously), The Wench is Dead does not take place in the Victorian era but rather in the present day, 1989. Morse, in hospital for treatment of a bleeding ulcer, becomes engrossed in a historical mystery: the 1859 murder of Joanna Franks, found floating in the Oxford Canal. Two men were hanged for the woman's murder and one man transported--all three boatman on the Barbara Bray, on which Joanna Franks had been a passenger. A restless Morse decides the case was mishandled and he investigates it from his hospital bed, with the aid of Sergeant Lewis and Christine Greenaway, a pretty, young librarian from the Bodleian).
Tey's novel explores the more fascinating historical drama, yet Colin Dexter has turned his historical mystery into one of his typically teasing classical murder puzzles, mechanically ingenious in the best style of Dorothy L. Sayers or Freeman Wills Crofts.
|Oxford Canal in The Wench is Dead|
One of the delightful things about Wench is the inclusion within the text of so many visualized puzzle pieces. For example, there's the frontis of the Oxford canal system, scene of the Joanna Franks' fatal boat trip (left).
This reminded me of such splendid Golden Age mystery endpaper maps as this one found in Freeman Wills Crofts' Death on the Way (1932) (below).
|Railroad in Death on the Way (1932)|
Delightfully, Dexter provides additional visual material, in the way of clues aiding Morse in his deductions: a page of medical testimony; a table of insurance premiums; two tombstones; a marked wall panel. Great stuff all! While many modern crime writers tend to loftily disdain this sort of thing as mere mysterymongering showmanship, many of us love it still, not less for its rarity today (Minette Walters is another modern writer who blessedly indulges us with these sorts of displays).
|Trent and Mersey Canal, locale of the actual death|
Time also is spent by the author detailing Morse's alternative bedtime reading, a pornographic item called The Blue Ticket. In Wench expect the usual references to women's breasts, as well as their knickers (though look closely: the knickers are not mere titillation!).
|John Thaw as Morse: a classic, like his car|
There are some good snippets of dialogue in the book, many of which were wisely picked up for the film adaptation. The film also does a fine job of visualizing those fascinating old canals, as well as a crucial late trip to Ireland, made after Morse is released from the hospital.
You certainly won't be the loser if you read the book and watch the film.