Last Seen Wearing
by Colin Dexter

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

an Inspector Morse mystery

Macmillan: London, 1976
288 pages

St. Martin's: New York, 1976

200 pages

July 2012


I enjoyed Colin Dexter's mystery novel Last Seen Wearing more upon re-reading than I did the first time. One of the distinctive approaches of Dexter to his plots is that secondary and tertiary clues and mis-clues are spread out before us like losing hands at cards, and sensuously fondled. Of course, as with others in the Inspector Morse series, while we read along we don't know that any particular trail Inspector Morse follows may be a dead-end or hopeless tangle; or that any particular scenario the imaginative Morse constructs may be a dream-castle in Spain, more suitable to a detectives' Faery than to workaday Oxford, England.

Thus there's rather a Nineteenth-Century feel to these novels, discursive among byways and stillwaters rather than simply roaring down the expressway to thrilling climax. This adds to the realism in several ways. The sliding-off-topic detail adds a lot to the sense of place, and extends the dimensionality of the characters so they are lively and unpredictable. The interior observations and monologues enhance the reader's immersion in the story, novelistic techniques that translate less well to stage or screen than many mystery plots such as Agatha Christie's: a narrative voice-over is required, at least. Morse is quite erudite, evident even while examining a photograph of a missing teenager, Valerie Taylor:

For the second time within twenty-four hours Morse found himself studying a photograph with more than usual interest. Lewis he had left in the office to make a variety of telephone calls, and he himself stood, arms akimbo, staring fixedly at the young girl who stared back at him, equally fixedly, from the wall of the lounge. Slim, with dark-brown hair and eyes that almost asked if you'd dare and a figure that clearly promised it would be wonderful if you found the daring. She was a very attractive girl and, like the elders in Troy who looked for the first time upon Helen, Morse felt no real surprise that she had been the cause of so much trouble.

A further and very practical value of all Morse's red-herring feasts is that the path of investigation is wayward, and hence the sureness of justice — or indeed its hope of accuracy at all — push on through error and doubt, much more like real world law-and-order than any artificially straightforward simplification could be. The actions and thoughts, confusions and surprises, seem quite realistic.

The very basis of Last Seen Wearing, notable in its title, is that it is a missing-person problem. There is no dramatic murder to demand response, no body to focus attention. There is no crime scene to start from. What Inspector Morse has to work with is the fact that Valerie Taylor, one day in summer term a couple of years ago, left home after lunch to walk back to school and never arrived.

I generally find annoying in novels, whether new or vintage: the authorial hint that something just under our noses has cryptic significance; or that far-away events will impinge on the main narrative; or likely-key people are speaking or acting without being named. In Colin Dexter's hands such devices work well, building the texture and ultimately the believability of his story. Here's a hint, early and necessarily general:

In different parts of the country on the Monday following Morse's interview with [his police boss, Chief Superintendent Strange], four fairly normal people were going about their disparate business. What each was doing was, its own way, ordinary enough — in some cases ordinary to the point of tediousness. Each of them, with varied degrees of intimacy, knew the others, although one or two of them were hardly worthy of any intimate acquaintanceship. They shared one common bond, however, which in the ensuing weeks would inexorably draw each of them toward the centre of a criminal investigation. For each of them had known, again with varied degrees of intimacy, the girl called Valerie Taylor.

We live in a complex world, and Last Seen Wearing is a nicely structured progress through a little of that complexity. A fine mystery, and a thoughtful novel.


© 2012 Robert Wilfred Franson

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