Friday, March 18, 2011

The Jewel That Was Ours

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 Jewel That Was Ours (McMillan, 1991).

I don't know whether any of Colin Dexter's many fans are going to appreciate me saying this, but the best thing that ever happened to that man's novels was the arrival of Central's television adaptation of them. I've been reading them in sequence, and found each and every one of the Inspector Morse stories to be a disappointment in one way or another, until The Wench is Dead, which was the first novel that Dexter wrote after the series began production. I can't account for this shift in quality beyond ill-informed speculation; all I know is that each of the novels let me down in one way or another until the eighth book.

In the second TV season of Inspector Morse, the producers began writing original teleplays for the characters in addition to adapting Dexter's novels. One of these, "The Wolvercote Tongue" by Julian Mitchell, served as the basis for The Jewel That Was Ours, the ninth book in the series. I imagine that it's a bitter pill for Dexter's fans to read me suggest that of these first nine books, the best two are one that has the same plot device as a Josephine Tey novel and one that's a novelisation of somebody else's story. I'm not trying to be an ass, honestly.

Anyway, this time around, Morse and Lewis are called in when an old artifact is stolen from the hotel room of a visiting American who, touring the region with a large group, has died of a heart attack. Shortly afterward, the body of one of the professors who was conducting lectures for the tour group gets pulled from the river. They have a busload of suspects who are keen to leave the country, a baffling number of links to old crimes and grievances, and a really disagreeable old lady who has constant opinions to interject about every stage of their investigation.

Even with the most disappointing of the early Morse novels, there was always a thing or two to keep me reading. Watching Morse grumpily go way too far in the wrong direction of an investigation, insistent that he's correct, keeps the character interesting and vibrant. I like the high wire act that Dexter plays, allowing us to cheer for a character who is wrong as often as he is right and not let him seem incompetent. This very human, deeply flawed construction really drives this story. If I may be allowed to heap further indignities on the notion of Dexter's originality, I also found echoes of P.D. James' better novels, before she started repeating herself, anyway, with the use of decades-old vengeance coming back to haunt survivors of an old tragedy and betrayal. It may be following in other writers' footsteps, but it's a hell of a good story, with a really cerebral and tantalizing mystery at its core, and I enjoyed the devil out of it. Recommended with gusto.

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