The Wench Is Dead
by Colin Dexter

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

an Inspector Morse mystery

Macmillan: London, 1989
200 pages

St. Martin's: New York, 1989

200 pages

May 2012


Colin Dexter takes his title for his mystery novel The Wench Is Dead from an infamous exchange in a play by Christopher Marlowe. While the key incidents in the plot don't go that far back, they do comprise a murder case and trial in England in 1859-1860. Chief Inspector Morse in his job normally investigates contemporary homicides, but being laid up in hospital provides the time, and accidentally the impetus to his curiosity, to begin researching this long-ago crime. The more he reads in the old documentation, the less satisfactory seem the circumstances of the murder along the Oxford Canal.

There's some nicely integrated material about the old canal-boat trade, their crews and passengers, which I found quite interesting. What bothers Morse about the evidence as recorded is the behavior of the participants, including conversations overheard, which does not sum to the whole assumed by the public at the time, nor to the conclusion arrived at by the court. So we have a psychological problem, albeit at a greater remove than usual, with none of the participants or witnesses available for interrogation.

As usual in the Inspector Morse mysteries, Colin Dexter provides some glancing bouts of eroticism, and overall a greater sense of realism than in narratives oriented more to the pure puzzle or to the thriller. Given the inherent structural displacement of applying detective skills to a crime so old that absolutely everyone involved is long dead, the story works quite well. The Wench Is Dead develops into a curious problem the more we follow Morse as he delves into the Oxford Canal boat trip, its people and the trial; and if you're not already rather entranced by canal boats, channeling some interest that way is an additional benefit of the book.


© 2012 Robert Wilfred Franson

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