Thursday, April 5, 2012

Victorian Tableaux Vivants #3, The Wench Is Dead (1989), by Colin Dexter

"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.

In contrast with Julian Symons' The Blackheath Poisonings and Peter Lovesey's Waxwork (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).

The Wench Is Dead surely was inspired by the classic Josephine Tey novel The Daughter of Time (1951), in which Tey's Inspector Grant, in hospital, investigates the famous historical mystery of who murdered the Princes in the Tower.  Like Tey's novel, Dexter's The Wench is Dead is based on a real life mystery.  In the case of the latter novel it is the 1839 murder of Christina Collins, allegedly by canal boatmen when she was travelling on the Trent and Mersey Canal.

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 
The dust jacket blurb for the English edition of The Wench is Dead accurately describes the novel as containing that "which has made [Colin Dexter] and Morse so popular: a superbly crafted puzzle solved by a formidable intellect." Readers who relish a good crime puzzle will enjoy competing with Morse in the attempt to solve it.

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
As in many puzzle-focused Golden Age mysteries, character interest in Wench is less pronounced than puzzle interest. Dexter still has young, attractive women falling for the overweight, out-of-shape, ulcerous, over- imbibing, frequently crabby ("Get on with it, Lewis!"), fifty-something Morse. He's just that much more interesting than the men anywhere close to their own age, don't you know.

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!).

This aspect of the Morse books is toned down in the television series.  In Wench, the women interested in Morse--a musical academic girlfriend and an American college professor and crime expert--are new characters, within a decade of Morse's age.  Morse spends considerably less fantasy time with the topless, nubile women of blue fiction.  And of course Morse is the late, great John Thaw, whose brilliant performances made Inspector Morse among the most indelible policemen characters in television history

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.

Colin Dexter


  1. Greta review Curt and how right you are to pinpoint its place in the GAD tradition. The TV version (adapted, of all people, by Malcolm Bradbury, who also did one of the Dalziel and Pascoe TV adaptations) is a bit anomalous of course, given the story, but mostly because Whately decided not to appear in it so we get Morse but no Lewis, which does hurt it. Incidentally, if we are being pernickety, not all the MORSE novels were filmed - specifically, THE SECRET OF ANNEXE 3 was omitted, probably because they thought that the basis for the complex alibi might prove a bit controversial (it's a fun Christmas book but not one of the author's best, it has to be said).

  2. Thanks Sergio. I assumed "The Secret of Bay 5B" was "The Secret of Annexe 3"? Odd they have such similar titles and no connection. And "The Last Enemy" is "The Riddle of the Third Mile," right? And then in a reversal the film "The Wolvercote Tongue" became the book "The Jewel That Was Ours"?--hope I have that all right!

    I should have mentioned for Lewis fans that there's no Lewis in the film, though I thought his "temp" was a good character. Was this because he Whately was doing The English Patient with Anthony Minghella (former Morse writer--fascinating that two Morse writers went on to direct films that won Oscars for best picture)?

  3. Hi Curt - I think I also initially made the mistake of confusing the two or assuming they were variants of the same material - but BAY 5B was an original story by Dexter that was then scripted by Alma Cullen (who became a series regular and recently wrote an original INSPECTOR MORSE stage play). BAY refers to a car park while ANNEXE refers to an extension to a hotel - the two plots have zero in common. LAST ENEMENY was so heavily re-written that Dexter's only got a story credit, which is why they chose not to refer to the novel basis.

    NB the Mancunian director Danny Boyle, resposible for handling two original Julian Mitchell scripts (MASONIC MYSTERIES and CHERUBIM & SERAPHIM) is not the same person as Scottish writer Daniel Boyle, who wrote 5 MORSE scripts and also wrote for HAMISH MACBETH, LEWIS and the REBUS series starring Ken Stott.

  4. Sergio, thanks again!

    Masonic Mysteries is a very good Morse indeed.

  5. Another great review of my favourite Morse novel. Again, I love the research aspect of the story & the Victorian setting. The final scenes of the TV version in Ireland are very good.

  6. Lyn,

    The Ireland segment made me want to visit there!