COLIN DEXTER - Last Bus to Woodstock. Macmillan, UK, hardcover, 1975. Pan, UK, paperback, 1977. St. Martin’s, US, hardcover, 1975. Bantam, US, paperback, 1988. Many later reprint editions, in both hardcover and soft. TV movie: ITV/PBS, 1988.
I’m not sure if I was able to come up with the earliest paperback edition to appear in the US, but if I’m correct, it wasn’t until the TV series began that Bantam published one in this country. If so, and I’m not entirely surethat it is, I think it may well be a case of US publishers thinking that the Inspector Morse books may have been too “British” to be successful over here.
It what follows I am going to be, I’m sorry to say, rather negative about this book, and to explain why, or to attempt to do so, I’m going to have to say things that you may easily find me giving away too much about the ending — or in other words, whodunit.
Back in 1975 I was given a copy of the first US edition to review, and I gave up after no more than a chapter. I don’t remember exactly why. It just didn’t appeal to me. A first novel by an unknown British writer? Except for Agatha Christie and a handful others, Ngaio Marsh for one, back then I wasn’t much interested in British detective fiction. I think I’ll go on read something else, thank you.
This time around, knowing the success the Morse books have gotten since then, I made it all the way through, but not happily. The case begins with a girl’s body being found in the courtyard of a pub somewhere in the general vicinity of Oxford. Because she was partially undressed, it is assumed it was also a case of rape.
And therein lies the first problem. It is assumed she was raped, but Morse and his new associate, Sergeant Lewis, do no more than assume, and fairly soon it is taken as fact. Neither Morse nor Lewis are interested in forensics, even what was the state of the art in 1975. No fingerprints, no close examination of the body, no anything. Eventually reports are referred to, but nothing of importance is relayed to the reader.
The whole investigation, in fact, is a muddle. Morse works on intuition, instinct, guesswork and lechery, not necessarily in that order. One does not get the impression that Morse (or his author) was ever in a police station. He has a good name in the department, but damned if I know why.
And here comes the crux of the matter. After meeting the roommate of one of the suspects, he falls immediately in lust with her, and for some reason, she for him. The “romance” that follows — she is already engaged to another — is straight out of the world of fantasy. He daydreams about her constantly, and she about him. (I also do not like the constantly shifting viewpoints from which the story is told. In the right hands, the story of a police investigation could be told this way, but this time around, it simply adds to the clutter.)
And Dexter depends on clutter to hide the killer’s identity, not that he succeeds. I knew who the killer was going to be as should as he/she appeared on stage, and I’m sure you will, too. It takes nine pages of solid type for Morse to expound upon the solution, however, most of which is based on facts that either the reader didn’t know about before, or facts that should have come up for discussion between Morse and Lewis long before page 195, if anything like a proper police investigation had been done.
My rating: Not Very Good. Given how many other works of detective fiction there are in the world to read, it’s not very likely I’ll give another adventure of Inspector Morse a try. And do you know what rankles the most? That the story takes place in around the Oxford area, and you’d almost never know it. It could’ve taken place almost anywhere in suburban, not big city England. What a waste of potential.