Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Death is Now My Neighbor

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 Death is Now My Neighbor (Macmillan, 1996).

There's an interesting rhythm to the later Inspector Morse novels. By this stage, with the television series a global success and author Colin Dexter a wealthy man, it really does feel like he's coasting, but the previous four books had all been so good that it doesn't feel like it matters very much. If this was a reader's first Morse novel, I can imagine it being hugely satisfying, but after so many of these tropes had been mined by the earliest books - many of them, sadly, inferior in both structure and design to this - what remains feels very repetitious. It will surprise nobody to learn that a major plot arc in this story involves subterfuge and chicanery among jealous Oxford dons. At various points, Chief Superintendent Strange will obliquely hint that he knows that Morse is working outside the letter of the law to collect his proof. Much as it is tedious to read a PD James novel wherein Adam Dalgliesh's holiday is spoiled by some pensioner killing an octagenarian over a betrayal during World War Two, this is by-the-numbers stuff, no matter how well it is told.

Well, before it starts down well-worn avenues, this case opens up with an apparently motiveless shooting in a quiet Oxford street. Turning the dead young woman's life upside down in search of an angle attracts the attention of a neighbor, Geoffrey Owens, who is incredibly curious, even for a journalist looking for a story. Morse's after-hours investigation into Owens turns up evidence of blackmail and all sorts of conspiratorial connections throughout the community, including the deceased. But what if she wasn't the target at all...?

If the preceding paragraph gave away too much of the plot, or what Morse turns up, don't be put out with me. Anybody with more than six or seven works of detective fiction under their belt is going to figure out these connections very quickly in a work of this nature. What makes Dexter's novels of the 1990s so appealing is how well he draws the characters within the framework of the plot. By this point, Strange and Morse are both nearing retirement, and Morse's loneliness has become almost painful to read. There's a wholly unexpected turn of events when Morse becomes ill and checks himself into a hospital, and learns that he's going to have to make some major life and health changes if he's going to retire at all.

As detective fiction, it really doesn't stand on its own two feet, and as something original within the series, it doesn't stand at all, but it's an extremely well-written book, and it's most likely that by this point, readers were picking up Morse more for the character and his friendship with Sergeant Lewis than for anything much deeper than that. Disappointing, but still recommended with a gram or two of enthusiasm.

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