Saturday, January 29, 2011
THE WAY THROUGH THE WOODS by Colin Dexter
I don't do well with leisurely British novels. Often they are too complex, too hard for me to follow. But despite those struggles, I liked this book.
From what I understand, Colin Dexter's The Way Through the Woods is a kind of classic. The cover of my paperback copy told me the story had been dramatized on Public TV and that the book was a New York Times notable book.
An unusual poem included in a letter in The Times (not The New York Times, as you can surely guess), causes the police to reopen a cold case. Inspector Morse himself is on vacation at the time, but the case falls to him when he returns.
Apparently a young Swedish tourist was murdered, though authorities never found her body. Morse had plumped for the police to search Wytham Woods, but the officers in charge had searched another wood instead.
Reopening the case initiates a series of murders, and even more than that, it encourages letter writers to continue with a series of letters to the editor about the poem. Each letter analyzes another of the esoteric references to English literature in the original poem.
This is the investigation of a murder through letters to the editor. Of course, there are all kinds of other police procedures as well, but the letters themselves give vital clues.
As most Dexter readers would guess, this is a literary novel. Every chapter has a literary heading, headings from everything like a typewriter manual to Shakespeare and much more esoteric literature than that.
Morse listens to classical music and is so well read that there is no piece of literature he can't seem to quote.
But he is human. He likes to drink, and he has an eye for the women.
The story takes amazing twists and turns. If I were to read it again, I might write down character names and a little about them so I could follow them when they reappear. But I blundered through and fully understood what happened.
And I understood the subtle way Dexter sets up the clues, seemingly passing them by almost without notice until they come back to haunt the reader.
I think Colin Dexter is one of those writers many people adore. When I bought this paperback book in a local used book store, the proprietor told me, "We have several more Inspector Morse books in the back room if you would like to buy them too."
I demurred, and that was the right thing to do. I will take my Colin Dexter Inspector Morse stories in small doses. One every once in a while, probably. But if you haven't read the book and happen to run across it, you might want to try it. It is a clever book indeed.