Friday, January 21, 2011

The Riddle of the Third Mile

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of The Riddle of the Third Mile (Macmillan, 1983).

I hate to say it, but this, Colin Dexter's sixth novel of Inspector Morse, is the first that I just can't recommend at all. I really was enjoying the daylights out of it, but it lost me, badly, towards the end.

For a good while, it really feels like it's going somewhere very new and interesting. It is the first Morse novel to really start playing with word puzzles and anagrams, with crosswords and a letter torn in half providing inspiration for Morse's little gray cells to start working overtime. A good bit of the story is really fascinating and fun, and I enjoyed looking for unexpected clues in the text for where the story would take me. There's a great bluff when what appears to have been an important anagram is revealed to be a letter shy, one of the most entertaining red herrings I've stumbled upon during the last couple of years reading detective fiction.

For what it's worth, the story concerns a missing Oxford don named Browne-Smith and the discovery of a badly dismembered body dragged from the river, and a curious witness with a suspiciously unusual name who reports it before vanishing. Morse initially thinks that he's found the missing man - who, decades previously, had tutored the future policeman during his failed college experience - and an ugly conspiracy to conceal his identity via the mutilation of the body. However, a letter from Browne-Smith arrives at the Thames Valley police department a couple of days later, throwing Morse's conjectured reconstruction into disarray.

But in the end, Dexter piles up the weirdness, the confusion and the questions of just who, from Oxford, went to London and why. By the book's climax, many more bodies have been found, including what should have been a pretty shocking murder-suicide, but Dexter's first mistake was killing off far more people than was necessary, leaving Morse no choice but to solve the mystery via more conjectured reconstruction. As we've seen in previous novels, Morse is frequently as wrong as a protagonist can get and not be viewed as incompetent by the reader, so it's just an act of good faith that we're willing to take a sudden authorial conclusion as what actually happened. Nobody in the text is left alive to confirm it.

There's also the twin problems of the crime itself being amazingly convoluted, even for a Dexter novel, and the author's very rushed and confusing prose as the body count piles up. There were quite a few sequences in the book's last quarter where I was forced to go back and reread what the heck just happened, and, now that I think about it, I'm still not certain who was posing as the witness to the discovery of the second corpse. It's unfortunate that a book that promised so much failed so miserably, but it's certainly one that I wouldn't recommend anybody attempt, unless they insist on reading all of Colin Dexter.

1 comment:

davdevalle said...

I think this is the best Morse. The clue is the meaning of go a second mile for someone, Which Browne Smith didn't do at El Alamein. The original meaning of 'go with him twain' in Matthew is all about not practising an eye for an eye. The beauty of this book is all those who fall into the problem of not going the second mile end up dead, killed by each other! It is a morality tale as well as a detective story. It is a tale within a tale. Yes you have to re-read to work it out and re-read - you have to go the third mile with Dexter himself to get this from it. I think it is a profound book and not just a detective tale of the TV Morse.