Clotted heart

The Remorseful Day

Colin Dexter <em>Macmillan, 374pp, £16.99</em>

ISBN 033376157X

An honest obituarist of Inspector Morse ought to say that it is hard to regret his death. In statistical terms - the number of murder cases eventually solved - he was a successful detective but he was prone to wildly wrong guesses in the early chapters of Colin Dexter's novels, sometimes directly causing the deaths of people who would have survived had he got it right first time. In many cases these extra victims were deplorable characters who deserved their fate, but I am sure that if their relatives had hired a competent lawyer they could have squeezed quite a lot out of the fictional Thames Valley Police for malpractice.

Nor did the inspector's personal life do him much credit. He drank a great deal too much, had a morbid obsession with classical music and cryptic crosswords and was irascible both with his subordinates and superiors: in no sense a team player. He conducted unsuitable and grossly unprofessional liaisons with several women whom he encountered in the course of his duties - heaven knows what they saw in him - even though some were clearly mixed up in the monkey business he was investigating. Indeed in this, his last case, his henchman Sergeant Lewis appears for a fleeting moment to suspect that Morse, who may or may not have lusted after the victim, could have been the killer. In the television series John Thaw portrayed Morse rather more sympathetically than Dexter wrote him, but even on screen he was never exactly Mister Conviviality.

None of this is meant to detract from Dexter's achievement in creating one of the great detectives of English fiction. It is a disappointment that this, the 13th and last of the canon, is not among the best. One of the problems is that Morse's fatal heart attack was widely reported before most of us picked up the book, casting a retrospective shadow over the whole convoluted plot and making for an even bleaker read than usual. By the time the loose ends are tied up, soon after Lewis has visited the morgue to plant his farewell kiss on Morse's forehead, the actual solution of the mystery seems an irritating irrelevance set beside the fate of the central character.

There are problems, too, with the structure. Dexter has always built his plots in short chapters, each one describing a single vivid, self-contained scene - this is part of what makes them effective as TV drama. With each book the scenes have become shorter and shorter, as though the author is finding them ever harder to sustain. This one consists of 80 chapters, plus a "prolegomenon" and an epilogue, each averaging fewer than five pages. The wasteful white space at the end of each chapter certainly helps bulk out the book but it detracts from its continuity and coherence.

Yet 24 years after Morse's first appearance in Last Bus to Woodstock, Dexter remains an inventive and ingenious writer, teasing us by never offering quite as much information as we need to second-guess Morse and Lewis and get to the solution before they do. With Morse clearly ailing and succumbing more and more to the comforts of the whisky bottle, Lewis is given greater scope here to exercise his own detective skills - but invariably he finds that even the half-speed Morse is a few steps ahead of him.

There are times when you feel that Dexter may be setting up Lewis to step into Morse's shoes, but as soon as the inspector dies Lewis is removed from the investigation, a symbol that he has no literary purpose beyond being a foil to the great man. "Just keep thinking well of him," is his final instruction from Chief Superintendent Strange. A tall order. If Lewis is one of life's sergeants, Morse was one of life's shits.