Hello everyone and welcome to my first review of a Colin Dexter novel. I first encountered this novel around 1980/81 in a second hand bookshop if I am remembering correctly. I’m still not sure why I chose to buy this book because I, then as of now, don’t read that many crime novels. In fact Colin Dexter and Arthur Conan Doyle are the only two crime novelists in my library. Well, that is not completely true I have what is considered to be the first ‘crime’ novel’ ever written The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. I believe I may have read the first chapter while in the bookshop and that got my attention. Of course, i’m glad I did buy the book as it has created a forty year love affair with all things Colin Dexter.
I can’t remember how I imagined Morse and Lewis when I first read the novels but of course now I see John Thaw and Kevin Whately.
Apart from a review of the novel I will also include sections pertaining to the characters, pubs, literary references etc of the novel.
I hope you enjoy the review. Be aware that there will be SPOILERS within this post. However I will make NO mention of who is the murderer.
First of thirteen Morse novels.
My edition was published by Pan Macmillan Ltd.
First Published in 1975.
My edition 309 pages.
Novel was televised in 1988. (Series 2, Episode 4)
First Lines of Novel.
‘Let’s wait a little bit longer, please,’ said the girl in dark-blue trousers and the light summer coat. ‘I’m sure there’s one due pretty soon.’
On re-reading this novel it is still difficult to believe that this assured, confidently written book was Colin Dexter’s debut novel. It is a book that oozes style and a well-researched subject matter. The novel’s humour, warmth and at times audacious writing help the novel to stay outside the confines of what could have been a pretentious piece of writing with its literary references and Latin phrases.
Mister Dexter has managed to combine the literary Dons, the dreaming spires, working classes and the seedier side of Oxford in a remarkable and honest manner. Colin had the ability to mix all these ingredients without one overpowering the other.
Chief Inspector Morse is a plausible, vibrant and flawed character who moves through Oxford’s heart of darkness in search of the truth. Morse is an unapologetically honest man who attempts to try and understand the world in which he lives.
Sergeant Lewis is a straight arrow who not only wants to be good at his job but recognizes that he has blind spots when it comes to the art of detecting. Lewis allows himself to be berated at times by Morse in the hope that what he learns from Morse will aid him in becoming a better policeman.
The chapter lengths are short, and this is style that is becoming more prevalent these days. Short chapters can be a way of allowing busy people to access novels easily. They allow a reader to take in plot points easier without the need to re-read previous chapters. Chapters of sometimes as little as ten pages give a sense of closure and progress when finishing a chapter. Are short chapters always the best way to communicate in a novel? No, of course not. There are times when a longer chapter is necessary to allow the novel to breath and communicate all that it needs to when a shorter chapter can be limiting and at times unsatisfying.
This novel is far from unsatisfying. Colin Dexter has an unerring ability to flesh out his characters without appearing to write very much about them. His style of writing appears deceptively easy and with the least amount of effort. However, as one reads the words the reader finds themselves breathing the same air as the characters; one feels the characters becoming part of one’s DNA.
Last Bus to Woodstock will rattle the windows of your soul with its engaging prose and skillful dialogue. All this and the novel’s masterful sense of place and clarity of character belie the epithet of `a first novel’. This debut novel is a great way to dip your toe into the expansive, mesmerizing place that is the world of Morse and Oxford.
Chief Inspector Morse
Sergeant Robert Lewis
Sylvia Kaye – Murder victim.
Mrs Mabel Jarman – The witness who talked to Sylvia at the bus stop.
Gaye McFee – barmaid in The Black Prince.
Stephen Westbrook – Manager of The Black Prince.
John Sanders – The boy Sylvia had planned to meet in the Black Prince.
Dorothy Kaye – The mother of Sylvia.
Jennifer Coleby – Co-worker with Sylvia.
Constable Dixon – Police Officer.
Bernard Crowther – English don at Lonsdale College.
Margaret Crowther – Wife of Bernard.
Clive Palmer – Manager of the Town and Gown Assurance Company.
George Baker – Lorry driver and a witness.
Sue Widdowson – Shares a house with Jennifer Coleby and has an affair with Morse.
Mary – Shares a house with Jennifer and Sue. (We don’t learn Mary’s surname)
Felix Tompsett – Colleague of Bernard Crowther.
Peter Newlove – Colleague of Bernard Crowther.
Constable McPherson – Police Officer.
Amy Saunders – John’s mother.
Inspector Bell – A Chief Inspector who contacts Morse after a suicide.
Chief Superintendent Strange – Morse’s superior.
Descriptions of Morse and Lewis.
Morse – “lightly built, dark-haired man”.
Morse – “hard grey eyes”.
Morse reads The Sporting Life a British newspaper about horse racing.
Morse has thinning hair.
Morse reads The Listener.
Crosswords are described as a passion for Morse.
Morse is reading a report on Sylvia’s death but comes to “a gory analysis, which Morse was glad to skip.”
“Lewis…was by several years the older man.”
Morse likes dancing. He invites Sue Widdowson to a dinner/dance.
Morse on seeing St. John’s College thinks of how well he knows it as he was an undergraduate there.
Lewis thinks to himself, “Give Morse a letter and his imagination soared to the realms of the bright eyed seraphim.”
Lewis describes Morse as “irascible and volatile”.
Music Morse Listens To in the Novel
Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle.
Pubs mentioned in the novel.
The Black Prince – This is where the murder occurred.
Morse visits a pub referred to as the Minster. I can only find a pub by the name of the Old Swan & Minster Mill which is now a hotel.
Bernard Crowther’s local pub is the Fletcher’s Arms. I couldn’t find any such pub.
Morse and Lewis ahave a drink in the White Horse, Kidlington. The White Horse pub in Oxford was used many times in the TV series. However, there is no White Horse pub in Kidlington thought there is a Black Horse pub.
Jennifer Coleby tells Morse she stopped for a drink at the Golden Rose at Begbroke. I can’t find any mention of this pub.
John Sanders has a drink at the Bookbinder’s Arms. The Old Bookbinders Ale House was used as a location in the TV episode Dead of Jericho.
Morse and Lewis arrange to meet in the Bird and Baby pub. The Eagle and Child, nicknamed The Bird and Baby was used in various episodes of Morse.
Morse asks to meet Palmer in the Bull and Stirrup. I couldn’t find any pub of this name in Oxford.
While Morse visits the house of Jennifer Coleby he notices a copy of Charlotte Brontë‘s novel Villette.
Bernadr Crowther is reading The Collected Works of Ernest Dowson. Margaret reads part of one of the poems.
I cried for madder music and for stronger wine,
But when the feast is finished and the lamps expire,
Then falls thy shadow, Cynara! the night is thine;
And I am desolate and sick of an old passion,
Yea, hungry for the lips of my desire:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.
From the poem Non sum qualis eram bonae sub regno Cynarae. (I am not as I was in the reign of good Cinara.)
Bernard remembers a phrase from his schooldays in bible class.
“Though your sins be as scarlet, scarlet, scarlet,
They shall be as white as snow.”
Bernard is reading Milton’s Paradise Lost.
Peter Newlove quotes from Milton’s Paradise Lost, Book I.
“From morn to noon he fell, from noon to dewy eve, a summer’s day.”
Morse has borrowed a book from the library; Edward de Bono’s A Five Day Course in Lateral Thinking. Published in 1967 the book offers a series of problems in thinking that require no special knowledge and no mathematics. The problems are designed to let readers find out about their personal style of thinking, its weaknesses and strengths, and the potential methods that they never use. Being right is not always important – an error can lead to the right decision.
Morse quotes William Wordsworth, “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive.” The full quote is
“Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive
But to be young was very heaven.”
― William Wordsworth, The Prelude.
While with Sue Widdowson at the dinner and dance he thinks of the lines “The Bride hath paced into the hall, Red as a rose is she.” This is a quote from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
Crowther sends a student off to write an essay on “symbolism in Cymbeline“. Cymbeline is of course a Shakespeare play.
Morse thinks of what he considers the saddest line of poetry he had ever read: “Not a line of her writing have I, not a thread of her hair.” This line is from Thoughts of Phena by Thomas Hardy. The full poem is;
Not a line of her writing have I,
Not a thread of her hair,
No mark of her late time as dame in her dwelling, whereby
I may picture her there;
And in vain do I urge my unsight
To conceive my lost prize
At her close, whom I knew when her dreams were upbrimming with light,
And with laughter her eyes.
What scenes spread around her last days,
Sad, shining, or dim?
Did her gifts and compassions enray and enarch her sweet ways
With an aureate nimb?
Or did life-light decline from her years,
And mischances control
Her full day-star; unease, or regret, or forebodings, or fears
Disennoble her soul?
Thus I do but the phantom retain
Of the maiden of yore
As my relic; yet haply the best of her–fined in my brain
It may be the more
That no line of her writing have I,
Nor a thread of her hair,
No mark of her late time as dame in her dwelling, whereby
I may picture her there.
Morse on looking at a dead person’s feet thinks, “and he would babble no more o’ green fields.” Morse is paraphrasing from Shakespeare’s Henry V, “His face was gaunt and he was babbling about green fields.” Pistol, Hostess, Nym, Bardolph are discussing the death of Falstaff.
Differences Between Novel and TV Episode.
There are of course many, many differences but I will note a few.
Mrs Mabel Jarman who talked to Sylvia at the bus stop is described in the novel as middle-aged while in the TV episode she is portrayed as much older.
Fabia Drake as Mrs Jarman – Born January 20, 1904 – Died February 28, 1990
The murder of Sylvia occurred in car park of the Black Prince in the novel. In the TV episode it happens at The Fox and Castle, 21 Burfield Rd, Old Windsor, Windsor, Berks.
Sylvia is killed with a tyre spanner. In the TV episode she is run over by a car.
In the novel the murder victim is referred to as Sylvia Kaye. In the TV episode she is called Sylvia Kane.
Sylvia lived alone in Oxford in the TV episode but in the novel she lived with her parents. Also, in the TV episode Sylvia’s father was a one night stand but in the novel he lives with Sylvia and her mother.
In the novel Sylvia and Jennifer Coleby worked at the Town and Gown Assurance Company. In the TV episode they worked at the St. Aldgates Assurance Company.
Mary becomes Angie Hartman in the TV episode. Mary is described in the novel as “dumpy, freckled, little man eater.” A long way from her character in the TV episode. In the novel she works at Radio Oxon while in the TV episode she is a student.
Bernard and Margaret have a daughter and son in the novel but no mention of having children in the TV episode.
Sue Widdowson becomes Mary Widdowson (the nurse).
Morse drives a Lancia not a Jag.
Bernard Crowther is lecturing on ‘Influences on Milton’s Poetical Style‘. In the TV episode he lectures on John Wilmot the Earl of Rochester.
Inspector Bell turns up in this novel but not in the TV episode. However his character does turn up in the TV episode Dead of Jericho. Strangely Bell calls Morse about a suicide and in the episode Dead of Jericho he is attending Anne Stavely’s suicide.
‘infra dignitatem‘ – Beneath dignity.
‘Vox auctoritatis‘. The voice of authority.
Lewis visits the Studio 2 cinema in Walton Street. That cinema is mentioned and used in the TV episode, The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn. The cinema is now called Phoenix Picturehouse.
In the novel Morse puts his “hands together in front of his face, fingertips to fingertips, eyes closed”. John Thaw used this characteristic in quite a few episodes of Morse.
From the episode Fat Chance.
I hope you all enjoyed this look into Colin Dexter’s first novel. Until the next post take care and thank you all so much for your continued support.
Great review, I’m coincidentally reading this book for the first time right now and it is no wonder that it lead to the whole morse universe. An excellent read and an excellent review,
Tooooo cool that you’re doing this, Chris!! I suspect that I will be reading this whole series after reading a couple of your synopses of these books. (I have read a few of the books but that was many moons ago!). Matter of fact, I’m off to Amazon to check their availability out!! Thanks sooooo much for doing this marvelous review of Colin Dexter’s “Morse” !!
You’re welcome Brenda. I’m glad you enjoyed the post.
I didn’t find any mention of the pathologist Max de Bryn in your review. In the tv programme he is Margaret Crowther’s relative I think? Thanks for this comprehensive analysis of the book – very interesting.
Just discovering your wonderful website. One question: the college where Morse studied is sometimes referred to as St. John’s College (as in the reference above), but more typically it is referred to as the fictitious Lonsdale College. Is there a reason for this?
This may be heresy. I recently tried for the first time to read a Morse book, but very soon found Dexter’s dated descriptions of women’s appearance tinged with misogyny, and off-putting.
Women always have to be described, and judged, first on their attractiveness to men and then on their morals; women’s breasts need to be classified as “full”, underwear as “skimpy”, etcetera, in a rather sweaty “Daily Mail sidebar” way.
Am very glad that in Endeavour, which I love, misogyny is not tolerated (huge thanks to Russell Lewis).
I believe that Colin was a little embarrassed by some of his early writing. However it does improve in later books.
Matter of ‘continuity’ : Chris, I’d be interested to know your thinking on how the envelope addressed to Jennifer Colby came to be in Sylvia’s possession the night of her death (containing £500 which John stole along with her necklace).
We know that Bernard was leaving envelopes of money at the St Aldgates office for the attention of Colby, which she would then secretly pass on to her flat-mate (the nurse, Mary). I assume we are just expected to conclude that it was by sheer chance that Bernard offered a lift to Sylvia that fateful night, realised she worked at St Aldgates, happened to have the £500 in cash on him in the car, along with the coded letter and envelope, and then handed it over to Sylvia to deliver by hand to Colby.
Of course, it could be that Bernard had discovered Sylvia’s link to St Aldgates and if indeed they did have a drink together, wrote the letter etc at that time and handed it over to her after that. Any thoughts?!
Many thanks for this website. They showed the episode here in Australia last night. Mike
Hi Mike. The envelope with the money was actually in Sylvia’s bag not with Crowther. Sylvia had taken the envelope with the money from the post room within St Aldgates office. I’m glad you are enjoying the website.
Thanks Chris. It’s still quite ironic that the envelope Crowther left at St Aldgates was in Sylvia’s bag whilst she travelled in his car and neither she nor Crowther realised their close connection. Thanks for sorting out my question!
I agree entirely with the comments of Jud on 20 Feb 2019.. I ahve jsut read three of the Molrse books and the sdame comments apply to the other two. I love the books other than Morse’s attitude to women (and that of some other male characters). I am even starting to wonder if thes episodes are telling us something abiout Dexter himself!
Have finished and enjoyed the Woodstock novel, but still confused as to the identity of the murderer. Sue Widdowson?
Yes, Binnie, it was Sue Widdowson. Morse works out that Widdowson became insanely jealous after witnessing Crowther and Sylvia having sex in the back of the car. Sue moves toward the car and hits Sylvia on the back of the head with a tyre lever.