Hello fellow Morsonians and welcome to my second Morse book review. My first review can be found by clicking here.
I’m sorry for the delay in posting a new post but as you can imagine things are rather hectic here what with college life, writing a novel, writing a book on the Lewis series etc etc. Anyway onwards and upwards.
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 or murderers.
Second of thirteen Morse novels.
My edition was published by Pan Macmillan Ltd.
First Published in 1976.
My edition 352 pages.
Novel was first televised on 8 March 1988 . (Series 2, Episode 2)
First Lines of the Novel.
“He felt quite pleased with himself. Difficult to tell for certain, of course, but yes, quite pleased himself really.”
Colin Dexter’s second novel is delicious in its ability to not only be enjoyable but also in its ability to frustrate you in equal measure. Its frustration comes in the amount of red herrings contained within the novel and also the way in which Morse figuratively almost trips over the solution to the crime. While reading ‘Last Seen Wearing’ I found myself thinking of the Sherlock Holmes phrase, “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.” This sentence sums up Morse’s method of solving the case.
Last Seen Wearing is a charming, literate novel that will please those who have read other Morse novels. The characters are, for the most part, engaging and believable. I found Valerie’s characterisation a little odd and incongruous in relation to her age and backstory. However Morse is a wonderful character written in an unapologetically honest manner.
While on the whole the dialogue is thoughtfully and skilfully written there are times when it feels unnatural and clunky but this can be forgiven in what is only Colin’s second novel.
Despite dealing with the sombre and sensitive issues of the possible death and disappearance of a young girl the novel is capable of emitting tenderness and humour. The author has managed to combine all these ingredients without allowing one to overpower the other and so spoil the recipe.
Colin has written a novel that one can honestly write about as being genuinely difficult to put down. The author has managed to avoid all those cliches that appear in so many modern crime novels. It is a genuinely powerful book that doesn’t resort to literary tricks or contorted techniques to capture the reader’s attention.
If you come to the novels from the TV series you may find some of Morse’s characteristics rather off putting; he smokes, he enjoys pornography and he curses. On rereading the novel I too find the above characteristics rather difficult to take but this is the original Morse, the Morse written by his creator Colin Dexter. Is the John Thaw Morse easier to like? Yes! But the version of Morse contained within the novel is a far cry from the soppy, politically correct inveterate halo wearing detectives that permeated the crime fiction world of the sixties and seventies.
Read and enjoy.
Chief Inspector Morse
Sergeant Robert Lewis
Chief Superintendent Strange – Morse’s superior.
Chief Inspector Ainley – The original officer on the case of the missing Valerie.
Valerie Taylor – The missing girl.
Eileen Ainley – Chief Inspector Ainley’s wife.
Reginald Baines – Second Master at Roger Bacon Comprehensive School.
Donald Phillipson – Master of Roger Bacon Comprehensive School.
Mrs Webb – The headmaster’s secretary.
David Acum – Former French teacher at Roger Bacon.
George Taylor – Valerie’s Step Father.
Grace Taylor – Valerie’s Mother.
Joseph Godberry – Lollipop Man (Crossing Guard)
Mrs Gibbs – Landlady.
John McGuire – Valerie’s school friend and one time boyfriend.
Sheila Phillipson – Donald’s husband.
Peters – Pathologist.
Dickson – Detective Constable.
Yvonne Baker – Friend of Valerie
Descriptions of Morse and Lewis.
Strange describes Morse as “I’m asking you to take on this case precisely because you’re not a very good policeman. You’re too airy-fairy. You’re too…I don’t know.”
We learn that Morse has “grey eyes“.
Morse prefers a flat pint to the fizzy keg most breweries were now producing.
“Morse firmly believed that there was nothing so unsatisfactory as this kind of halfway house pornography; he liked it hot or not at all.”
He occasionally buys a Sunday tabloid newspaper.
Morse has racist tendencies, “Look, you miserable wog.”
Lewis was a former light middleweight boxing champion.
Sheila Phillipson describes Morse as, “a slimly built man with a clean, sensitive mouth and wide light-grey eyes.”
Lewis may have had an affair during his marriage. Morse asks Lewis, “Have you ever had another woman? Lewis smiled. An old memory stirred and swam to the surface of his mind like a bubble in still water. ‘I daren’t tell you, sir.”
Books on Morse’s bedside table are “A Road to Xanadu, A selection of Kipling’s Short Stories, The Life of Richard Wagner and selected prose of A.E. Housman.”
Morse does not have a problem with blood or bodies. Morse pulls a knife out of a victim’s body while “Lewis loathed the sight of death, and he felt his stomach turning.”
Morse is terrified of Spiders.
Morse is thinking about women, “There had been women, of course; too many women, perhaps. And one or two who could still haunt his dreams and call to him across the years of a time when the day was fair. But now the leaves were falling round him: mid-forties; unmarried; alone.”
Morse sings in baritone.
Morse is anti-Welsh.
Morse speaks French.
Morse drives a Lancia.
Morse lives in North Oxford.
Music Morse Listens To in the Novel
Morse attends a performance of Wagner’s Die Walküre at the English National Opera.
Pubs mentioned in the novel.
Morse visits the King Charles in Wolvercote. If there was such a pub it no longer exists.
Baines visits the White Horse in Oxford. http://www.whitehorseoxford.co.uk/
Baines drinks in the Royal Oxford pub. If there was such a pub it no longer exists.
The Jericho Arms is where George Taylor plays darts. There is no Jericho Arms but there is a Jericho Tavern 56 Walton Street, Jericho, Oxford, Oxfordshire, OX2 6AE.
Morse drinks in the Randolph Hotel bar.
Morse also drank in the Fletcher’s Arms but again this does not exist.
All the chapter headings are mostly literary quotes so I have only mentioned those within the text of the novel.
“The pass at Thermopylae was abandoned and the Persian army was already streaming through.” The Battle of Thermopylae was fought between an alliance of Greek city-states, led by King Leonidas of Sparta, and the Persian Empire of Xerxes I over the course of three days, during the second Persian invasion of Greece. Story told by Herodotus.
Morse finds ‘Travels with a Donkey‘ on Phillipson’s desk. The book is by Robert Louis Stevenson. The full title is Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes.
Morse mentions the “seventh circle of Dante’s hell“. The Divine Comedy is a long narrative poem by Dante Alighieri, begun c. 1308 and completed in 1320, a year before his death in 1321. The narrative describes Dante’s travels through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise or Heaven.
Differences Between Novel and TV Episode.
Many of the characters from the novel were retained for the TV episode except Chief Inspector Ainley, Eieen Ainley, Reginald Baines, Joseph Godberry, Mrs Gibbs, Peters -the pathologist. Detective Constable Dickson and Yvonne Baker – Friend of Valerie.
Reginald Baines became Cheryl Baines. David Acum had a beard. George and Grace Taylor become George and Grace Craven. They also move from being poor to being rich.
The resolution to Valerie’s disappearance is resolved differently in the TV episode. The outcome for the Taylors/Cravens is different.
There is no Max DeBryn in the novel.
John McGuire is older in the TV episode and from being a bouncer at a strip club in the novel he becomes a Estate Agent in the TV episode. In the novel John was also at the same school as Valerie but not the John in the TV episode.
The school run by Phillipson and attended by Valerie goes from being a Comprehensive in the novel to a posh girls’ school in the TV episode.
Who is sleeping with whom in the novel is also different in the TV episode.
There are of course quite a few other differences but above are the main ones.
Ex nihilo nihil fit – Out of nothing you will get nothing.
Mrs Acum tells Morse that a conference that David Acum attended was at Lonsdale College. Lonsdale College is the fictitious college that Morse attended. Brasenose College was the stand in for Lonsdale.
Inspector Ainley lives at 2 Wytham Close, Wolvercote. There is no Wytham Close but of course there is a Wolvercote.
Morse mentions that he almost bought a house overlooking Port Meadow.
The fictional Roger Bacon Comprehensive School is located in Kidlington. It is also home to the Taylor family.
David Acum left Roger Bacon School to work a school in Caernarfon in Wales.
Donald and his wife live on Banbury Road, Oxford. Banbury Road is 5.955 km in length. Banbury Road is a major arterial road in Oxford, England, running from St Giles’ at the south end, north towards Banbury through the leafy suburb of North Oxford and Summertown, with its local shopping centre. Parallel and to the west is the Woodstock Road, which it meets at the junction with St Giles’.
One of the chapter headings is ‘Man kann den Wald nicht vor Baümen sehen‘. It is a German proverb. Roughly translated it means ‘I cannot see the forest for the trees’.
COLIN DEXTER EXPANDING OUR VOCABULARY.
Diocletian – Diocletian, born Diocles, was a Roman emperor from 284 to 305.
Peregrinations – a journey, especially a long or meandering one.
Hebdomadal – weekly (used especially of organizations which meet weekly).
Pettifogging – placing undue emphasis on petty details; petty or trivial.
Minatory – expressing or conveying a threat.
Batrachian – A frog or toad
Thurifer – an acolyte carrying a censer in a religious ceremony.
I hope you enjoyed this post. Until the next post take care.
Very good Chris but If you as l do prefer the gritty realism of a Morse look no further than the portrayal of John Shrapnel particularly a propos this novel as dramatised by (unusually) the bbc. To me Robert Glenisters’ Lewis is superior as well and the play is possibly more in keeping with the novel.
Just a thought but Shrapnel appeared in Death is now my Neighbour quite literally holding his own against Paul McGanns imaginative hairstyle. And Fred Thursday alter ego got an early outing as a passable academic!
Thanks for doing this Chris, but please don’t neglect your studies. I am planning another re-read of all the books at Christmas when I have a week on my own – so looking forward to it!
Thanks Chris, I’ve enjoyed reading the Morse novels, including this one, as I find it gives depth to the TV portrayals. I hope your review encourage more “morsians” to crack open Colin’s real masterworks, the Morse books. Your review is on point and points out nicely the many ways the character of the books is either different from or in many ways never alluded to in the series. Last Seen Wearing is also one of my favorite Morse books and I found it much better than the TV episode by the same name. Now, get back to work on your Lewis book I’m really looking forward to that!
Good review I found the ending of this one rather odd and abrupt , no confro ntatipn with the murderer, just that rather lame epilogue.
Hello from Italy! I found your awesome blog googling about Colin Dexter’s novels. I love this book, although, as you correctly said in your review, it’s quite frustrating for the reader. In particular, I’m still struggling to understand the motive behind Baines’ murder. Could you elaborate about it, please??
Thank you for this post which is pretty recent too. This was a very frustrating novel. I have read it twice and just finished listening to it. I am still clueless as to what happened to the real Mrs Acum. Why did Baines write the letter that purported to be from Valerie? Why did Valerie pick the same night that her husband (Acum) was in Oxford to bump off Baines (in fact not even sure why she bumped him off)
Morse’s efforts to prove that Mrs Acum is Valerie are so childish- trying out French with her. What happened to his reasoning that the real Mrs Acum was flat chested but the one that he saw on his first visit to Wales had full breasts?
I agree with many of the sentiments expressed in some of the comments above. Having just finished reading Dexter’s second Morse novel, I feel that while it is very engaging and certainly a page-turner, it doesn’t quite match the excellence or the much more satisfactory ending of his first novel, “Last Bus to Woodstock”. Given that there had already been many red herrings and false leads, I believe that perhaps Colin slightly overreached himself with that final twist in the tale, regarding Morse’s fairly certain suspicions that Valerie has in fact pretended to be David Acum’s wife, only to be fooled into thinking he’d got it wrong, once she spoke some fairly fluent French, in conversation with him. Notwithstanding, she also had spots on her face, akin to a photograph Morse had seen of Mrs. Acum. As it turned out, after Morse blunders a couple more times, he realises that he had been correct with that earlier assertion, which was Valerie Taylor had indeed been living with David Acum in Wales for the past two years.
In attempting to answer some of the questions posed, by the most recent comment posted on this web page, I assume, Baines forged the letter, prentending it was written and sent by Valerie from a London postcode, in order to further enhance his blackmailing of the Headteacher Phillipson and French teacher Acum. He was luring the police in the wrong direction of London, hoping to perhaps extract more blackmail money from those two teachers, as he knew they had been at differing times, very sexually intimate with Valerie. He was also gaining sexuals favours from Valerie’s mother, in order to find out more from the Taylor perspective of Valerie’s affairs. I believe, that while he was on his way to the Taylor household, to continue his affair with Valerie’s mother, he witnessed Grace Taylor’s staged deception of the exact time her daughter went missing, (to have an abortion in London). As we know, she did this, by dressing up in her daughter’s school uniform and walking in the direction of the school, at the end of Valerie’s usual lunchtime at home.
There was certainly no answer in the novel, to the question of what happened to the real Mrs. Acum. While, to some extent that it is possibly not extremely significant to the plot, it would have been nice to know where she had moved to, whether David Acum had actually divorced her, or whether they had merely separated, and finally whether after leaving David, she subsequently knew, that he and Valerie were living together in Wales.
To answer the final question in the comment above, Valerie chose the same night David was in Oxford at a conference, to bump off Baines, for a numer of reasons, that had all added up drip by drip, according to Morse, and this is outlined on pages 297 to 303 of this novel. I have some questions and reservations, regarding the unravelling of Valerie as the key character behind the death of Baines. One of those questions would be when had Valerie passed her driving test? We know she can drive, because she hired a car from Wales to Oxford on the night Baines was killed. I assume it must have been, before she went missing, because I’m not sure she could have secured a driving licence under the false name of Mrs. Acum.
To conclude, I’m sorry if I’ve been rather long-winded, in posting these comments.
Despite my extensive comment earlier today, I relaised that possibly another reason for Baines to have forged the letter, was not just to lure the police in the wrong direction of London, for blackmail payment, but also for the opposite reason. That is luring the Thames Valley police in the right direction, to the wicked Metropolis of London, allowing them to uncover the truth, that Valerie had indeed gone ahead with an abortion. In addition, this would also reveal the date of her termination, which obviously coincided with the time she first went missing.
To sum up, I would say Baines’s blackmailing consisted of a combination, of luring the police in the right and wrong direction. Finally I will close with a quotation, because as Morse mentioned on page 259, when trying to explain why Baines forged the letter, “It could have been to put the police off the scent, or put them on – take your pick. But I feel fairly sure that one way or another it would keep his little pot boiling”.
Thank you James for attempting to explain some of the plot points. So when Baines sent the letter that’s supposed to be from Valerie, he didn’t know that Valerie was now Acum’s “wife”. And if he used that as a pretext to extort additional blackmail from Acum he would surely have been met with a rebuff. And presumably Phillipson knew that Valerie was with Acum too and would have rebuffed him as well?
Thanks for the very quick reply Govind. I assumed Baines did know that Valerie was now Acum’s “wife” in Wales. He would have discovered this fact, because due to his role as Deputy Headmaster, he would have known Acum had put in a transfer to move to a new teaching position, a long way from Oxford, at a distant outpost in northern Wales, suspiciously soon after Valerie had first gone missing. He would have also known, through the sexual favours and/or affair he was having with Valerie’s mother. Let’s not forget, Morse believed he was paying Grace Taylor for this intimate relationship, and he may have demanded she tell him more about what had actually happened to her daughter, after she had disappeared, or he would not pay her.
Valerie’s mother had become addicted to drinking and gambling at the bingo, and did not have a great deal of money, as her husband only worked at the dump. Therefore she was not in a very good position, to turn down the money provided to her by Baines. Morse had speculated that Valerie still kept in contact with her mother via phone, once she had arrived in Wales. Possibly, Baines had eavesdropped a phone conversation, while he was at Grace’s house having the affair, and then he had demanded to know more information, or he would not continue paying her.
Ultimately, the point I am trying to make is that Baines had Phillipson, Acum and Grace Taylor by the short and curlies. He could lure the police in the wrong direction of London, gaining some blackmail from his victims, because he knows David and Valerie are in Wales. However, he is also luring the police in the right direction of London, because he knows they should uncover the truth of Valerie having an abortion. Perhaps, he wanted Phillipson and Acum to cough up more money, or otherwise he would lead the police on the trail to the termination. In conclusion, through either method of luring the police in the wrong or right direction, he had his blackmail victims in a terrible trap, with very little wriggle room for them to escape.
Further to my previous comments, perhaps I should also mention another reason why Baines forged the letter and posted it in London, (creating the pretence that Valerie is residing in the wicked Metropolis) was because of the death of the original senior investigating officer, Inspector Ainley.
Over two years after Valerie had gone missing, official inquiries had long since drawn a blank and had been shelved. However, Ainley had doggedly pursued his own “unofficial” investigation, and this had led him to London on the 1st September, on his “day off” from work. Tragedy intervened though, it appears he died in a car crash on his way back from London, on that very same day.
Ainley’s sudden death would have, in all probability, accelerated a closure of this missing persons inquiry, as firstly, he had been the only officer who seemed to have retained an interest in the case. Secondly, as previously stated, all “official” files and lines of inquiry, had conveyed the impression, of having run into a bewildering dead end. The blackmail victims of Baines, which included Phillipson and Acum, possibly breathed a sigh of relief, when learning of Ainley’s death.
As a consequence, the manipulative Baines decided to forge the letter, dated the day after Ainley’s passing, to kickstart the police investigation. This brought Morse and Lewis to the fore, because of this new and apparently convincing piece of evidence, (the handwriting seemed genuine, although Morse always remained sceptical). In addition, it would leave Baines’s blackmail victims very worried again, over what further questions and line of argument, a fresh investigation could bring to the table.
In conclusion, with the police once more, very much involved in a new inquiry, Baines could blackmail his victims very effectively. In all likelihood, he could demand more money, for not revealing, to Morse and Lewis, the many details he has observed and discovered, regarding the missing girl and her affairs with Acum and Phillipson. Whilst at the same time perhaps, he could also still, drop subtle hints to the police, in order to keep the inquiry moving, and ultimately, this would ensure, his blackmail victims remained extremely anxious indeed.