Last Bus to Woodstock by Colin Dexter

Originally published in 1975
Inspector Morse #1
Followed by Last Seen Wearing

The death of Sylvia Kaye figured dramatically in Thursday afternoon’s edition of the Oxford Mail. By Friday evening Inspector Morse had informed the nation that the police were looking for a dangerous man – facing charges of willful murder, sexual assault and rape.

But as the obvious leads fade into twilight and darkness, Morse becomes more and more convinced that passion holds the key…

I was still a toddler when the Inspector Morse television show debuted. By the time I had grown up and become a mystery fan myself it was already a cultural phenomenon and nearing its conclusion after more than a decade on our screens. If memory serves I started with the end – a rather rotten way to begin as I had little sense of the characters and the final story is rather different – and went back to watch the others when they were released on VHS in one of those partwork magazine series that were so popular around that time. The point here is that, like many, I first became familiar with Morse on screen as portrayed by John Thaw so when I finally got around to experiencing Dexter’s original novels during my time away at college the experience came as a bit of a shock.

Last Bus to Woodstock was the first of those Morse novels. There are, of course, many things that Dexter’s Morse has in common with his television equivalent; from the start we see his interest in music, beer and crossword puzzles. While Thaw could be gruff and irritable however, Dexter’s original conception of his character was younger, more abrasive and – as we see in this initial outing and will certainly come back to later in this post – a bit of a letch around women.

The case in this novel concerns the brutal murder of Sylvia Kane, a young woman whose body is discovered outside a pub. The medical examination shows signs of rape while the cause of death was a savage blow to the head. With no witnesses to the murder itself, Morse’s only lead is a report that Kane had been trying to catch a bus with another woman earlier that evening. The problem lies in figuring out who that might be and how they relate to the crime itself…

It has been a number of years since I read this and my memories of this one are pretty dim so I was a little surprised to realize how graphic Dexter would be about the condition of the corpse and in the way her death would be discussed by the investigators. Much is made, for instance, of the notion that she was not wearing a bra and – in what is easily the most uncomfortable passage in the book – Morse speculates on whether, given the lack of evidence to show a struggle, she may have wanted to have been raped.

It is not entirely clear from the text alone whether Dexter intended this to try to accurately capture the way these men might talk or it is a statement of the author’s own views on the matter (for the record, I believe it is the former). What is notable though is that the idea goes unacknowledged and unchallenged making it, at times, a rather uncomfortable read. This is not helped by the way that most of the female characters are treated as objects by the male characters, often in the most inappropriate circumstances.

To give one example, there is a second death later in the novel and the victim is a woman. Morse’s immediate response to seeing the body is to note, with surprise, ‘how attractive she must have been’. It’s not just Morse either – earlier in the novel there is a moment where Lewis considers his thirteen year old daughter’s ‘nice little figure’ after considering how the first corpse resembled a glamor shot in a ‘girlie magazine’. It all feels rather sordid and while there is a point to the explicitness in the portrayal of the violence Sylvia has suffered, it feels as if the reader is being invited to view her as something of a deserving victim.

Fortunately the rest of the book does have a number of other points of interest in terms of the puzzle itself. Dexter’s writing seems to exhibit examples of both the detective and the psychological approaches to mystery fiction in about equal measure, positioning this book as an interesting bridge point between those two styles.

Morse tackles the clues in a structured and thoughtful way, spotting important details that help him to slowly piece the puzzle together. He considers not only what he knows but he can presume based upon the evidence he has gathered as we see most memorably in one of the novel’s strongest sequences in which, suffering the aftermath of an injury, he works through a series of thoughts to attempt to construct a profile of a figure from the case. It makes for one of the novel’s most interesting and compelling moments, heightened by the character’s clear instability at that time, and it was nice to see our detective exercising some good, solid, logical thought.

One other thing I really like about this book, and the series as a whole, is that it doesn’t try to make Morse infallible. There are a number of moments in this book in which we see Morse stumble and become confused, misinterpreting something or taking the evidence in the wrong direction. Those obviously stretch the story out a little but they are understandable and also often illustrate something of Morse’s character and his approach as a detective.

If Morse is a little different from his television version, Lewis feels like an entirely new character. Where the TV version was younger and a university graduate, the version in the books is older, settled down and interested in learning more. His relationship with Morse is, inevitably, a little different but, I would argue, in a good way. Later books would adjust the presentation of the character and his relationship with Morse to more closely mimic that found in the television series between Thaw and Whately but as much as I enjoy that dynamic, I think the younger detective paired with a more seasoned policeman works just as well.

As for the mystery, the novel does a rather good job of piecing things together to make for an intriguing solution. I really loved the way that Morse makes logical deductions from the few scant facts he has been given to weave into a rather ingenious solution. I found the subtle clueing to be every bit as impressive as I remembered and found some other aspects of the ending to be very impactful.

Judged purely for its puzzle, Last Bus to Woodstock impresses. It offers a cleverly structured solution and Dexter spaces out the developments well, making this a very engaging read. Some will find it easy to focus purely on this and ignore the stuck in their time moments or treat them as moments illustrative of the characters Dexter had created. Others will feel less comfortable. I highlight them to make you aware that they are there so that you can decide for yourself.

The Verdict: Morse’s first case offers a satisfying puzzle that leads to a powerful and memorable conclusion. Better would be to come but as a debut it’s pretty successful. Readers may want to consider starting with one of the later novels however where, if memory serves, the character was presented a little less abrasively.

Second Opinions: The Puzzle Doctor @ In Search of the Classic Mystery offered his thoughts on the story and its themes in this review.

Interested in purchasing this book to read yourself? While there hasn’t been a new physical edition of this book in a while, older reprints are still available such as the 1996 Ivy Books paperback (0804114900) and the 1997 Pan Books paperback (978-1447299073 – the edition pictured above).

3 thoughts on “Last Bus to Woodstock by Colin Dexter

  1. Dexter’s books often feel sordid, as you say. The plots are very clever, but the books seem to have been written by a dirty old man going through a mid-life crisis. The number of times Morse goes to porn cinemas, or reads victims’ dirty magazines, or ogles suspects… Thankfully, that didn’t crop up in the TV series! Instead, there was beer, Mozart, and Wagner.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I was really struck by that this time around. I remembered moments along those lines (more to do with the characters in the stories rather than Morse himself) – I had evidently forgotten the quantity of them.
      As you say, thankfully that wasn’t a big part of the TV show!


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