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Saturday, April 4, 2015

Death is Now My Neighbor by Colin Dexter

Ivy Books, 336 pages, $7.99

Yes, I read Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse books out of order. Yes, I did not read “Death Is Now My Neighbor,” the penultimate Morse book, until just a few days ago, although I did cheat some years ago and looked at the last page for Morse’s first name. Now, of course, everyone who cares about Morse knows what his first name is since it is splashed across the title screen for the newest PBS Mystery series about Dexter’s iconic character. And if you care about Morse, you will have read this book anyway.

For those of you who have never picked up a Morse book, or for those of you who have only a desultory experience with Morse-reading, this review is for you.

The Inspector Morse books are erudite, monstrously witty, good-humored, play-fair mysteries. In terms of the balance of literary power, Great Britain has given us P. D. James, Ruth Rendell, Reginald Hill, and Colin Dexter. We have given them revised and dumbed-down versions of Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys.* 

Towards the end of the small series (thirteen novels over almost twenty-five years), Morse is a changed and changing man. In “Death is Now My Neighbor,” Morse’s vulnerability is laid bare. He is the best and laziest inspector (that’s “chief” inspector, please) in the Thames Valley force, situated in Oxford, England. Sergeant Lewis is the best and most compassionate assistant in said force. Morse delights in working the Azed crossword puzzles and crowing his superiority over Lewis’ practical and educationally scant knowledge. Oxford-educated Morse may know his culture, but Lewis knows his people. It is one of the most perfect “buddy” pairings in detective history, in my opinion.

There are two stories at work in this book: the basic mystery and Morse’s personal story. For the sake of people who have not read other Morse books, I will forgo any description of Morse’s personal story. It will have more of an impact if you first read the other stories. It will make the revelations in this book more poignant.

Morse and Lewis are assigned the murder of a young woman who has been shot in the head while standing in her kitchen early one morning. The shot came from outside, through her window and a partially-obscuring shade. As her past is investigated, it comes to light that one or more of her neighbors are potential suspects. It also is discovered that her lover is one of the two candidates for Master of Lonsdale College, a significant position. Her boyfriend, it turns out, is married and he would shudder at the thought that a peccadillo might unseat his chances of becoming Master. The list of suspects has now grown.

After a second murder occurs, the story wends its way over to Lonsdale and the Master competition and a behind-the-scenes look at the delightfully devious and diabolical politics of academia.

To solve the mystery, Morse is his usual dictatorial self and Lewis plods along in his efficient and effulgent way.

I’m glad to have finally read this.

P.S. If you have seen the televised version of this book, it does change the tenor of the book considerably. Morse's personal story has been eliminated, and for brevity's sake, some characters have been conflated.

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