I came to Colin Dexter belatedly and, although I have admired all of the novels that I have read by him, I have never indulged in a Morsefest in the same way in which I read most of the Minette Walters’ novels – or much of Anthony Trollope’s oeuvre, for that matter – in one short consecutive burst. I was therefore recently surprised and delighted to discover a well-thumbed edition of The Way Through the Woods on my bookshelves. (Although it had certainly accommodated previous readers, probably several of them, I was not among their number and, indeed, I don’t know how I came by this copy. It may have been a present from a fellow crime fiction fan.)
I should like to heap unreserved praise on this book, which is undoubtedly the best of the Morse series that I have read. Unsurprisingly, it won the CWA Gold Dagger in the year of its publication, 1992; although I don’t know what its rivals were, I am convinced that a grave injustice would have been perpetrated had the award gone to any of them. It is Dexter at the height of his powers.
The plot is extremely complicated, with a large cast of delightfully individual characters. I guessed one of the main twists that the narrative would take about halfway through, but there is an additional twist to this twist that remains almost unguessable until the end. Like all Morse novels, it can be read on several levels and is a rich, deep evocation of how life unfolds within a certain stratum of British society. If I could sum up the plot in a few words, it would be ‘When is a victim not a victim?’ An enigmatic and gnomic observation, perhaps, but not as enigmatic and gnomic as the book itself and, if I were to offer further clues, I might inadvertently create a ‘spoiler’.
Also, as with all Morse novels, the cultural references are legion: Dexter doesn’t just quote extensively from the whole canon of English literature, but displays an impressive knowledge of classical music, jazz and fine art. In another writer, this might seem pretentious, perhaps even self-regarding, but Dexter, like Morse, endears by consistently keeping his tongue in his cheek. Another facet of the writing that keeps preciousness at bay (and I don’t recollect this in the other Morse novels, though I suspect that it must be there) is that Morse leads quite an adventurous, not to say outré, sexual life. This is kept intriguingly veiled – and unsordid, if there is such a word – by confining itself only to the arrivals and departures of Morse’s paramours. What happens during their visits is left strictly to the reader’s imagination.
I realise that I have come to this book so belatedly that I am probably speaking to the converted. However, I should still like to take this opportunity to offer my praise and to encourage you to make the same voyage of discovery if you have not done so already.