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Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Book Review: Last Bus to Woodstock by Colin Dexter

The original jacket cover
Inspector Morse is one of those household name characters,  the kind of fictional detective familiar to even those people who have never read a word of the original novels from which he sprung. And to be honest until I picked up Last Bus to Woodstock, the first of the novels and originally published way back in 1975, I was one of those people. I've likely seen every episode of the TV series, as well as much of the spin-offs Lewis and Endeavour, but the original novels had escaped my attention.

What struck me about Last Bus to Woodstock is how different the character of Morse is to the version John Thaw portrayed on our screens - the Morse here is a much seedier character, borderline creepy old man, drives a beaten up old Lancia instead of the sleek Jag and is several years younger than his sidekick, good old Sergeant Lewis. There are some touches of the more familiar Morse -  he loves crosswords for one thing, and adores his classical music. And the plot is as intricate as any presented in the TV versions.

The cover blurb - Beautiful Sylvia Kaye and another young woman had been seen hitching a ride not long before Sylvia's bludgeoned body is found outside a pub in Woodstock, near Oxford. Morse is sure the other hitchhiker can tell him much of what he needs to know. But his confidence is shaken by the cool
inscrutability of the girl he's certain was Sylvia's companion on that ill-fated September evening. Shrewd as Morse is, he's also distracted by the complex scenarios that the murder set in motion among Sylvia's girlfriends and their Oxford playmates. To grasp the painful truth, and act upon it, requires from Morse the last atom of his professional discipline.

A more tasteful cover design
Of course the book was written in the 70's and as such displays a lot of the attitudes of that decade so I don't think it should be jumped on for the sexist nature of many of the characters, Morse included on times, but several of the passages dealing with rape can give the modern reader a jolt. The old joke - Confucius he say, woman with skirt up run faster than man with trousers down - is even spoken by one character at a particularly unsettling passage in which several characters question the fact that rape can actually exist. However during the time the book was written these attitudes were quite common, and one can't condemn Dexter for writing to the times rather than some far more enlightened period in the future.

In fact in many ways this book reads like historical fiction - there is no Internet, no mobile phones, no DNA, women are typists with shapely legs and a major plot point depends on the slowness of the British postal system. That said it is still a superior detective novel and rewards the reader with a well drawn out plot and puzzles a'plenty.

I am told that this book is not typical of the series as a whole and I will be reading more books in the series, in fact I intend to read the entire series before 2018 is out, so it will be interesting to see how the character develops over later books. So as they say - watch this space.

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