The Wench is Dead

During a stay in hospital, Inspector Morse comes across a monography on a murder that happened in 1859. Joanna Franks, the passenger of a canal boat was found dead in the water at Duke´s Cut on the Oxford Canal. The crew of her boat were tried and two of them eventually hanged for the murder. But something about the case seems off to Morse, and he starts reading up on Joanna´s life and times, and the circumstances surrounding the case…

This is the 8th novel in the Inspector Morse series, and probably not the best one to start with. Having not read any Morse before, I found the book rather tedious when it talked about the Inspector and his stay in hospital, and at least two minor characters were introduced with a full biography that actually contributed nothing to the story. But then, I read crime fiction for the background setting and the whodunnit puzzle, and tend to find it quite off-putting when the book blabbers too much about the midlife crisis, marriage problems or other neuroses and psychological hangups of the detective. In this particular case, Morse was not introduced or portrayed in a way that made me care about, or even get interested in him as a character, so the frame story surrounding the historical case was pretty much wasted on me. And while the historical case (the reason I picked this up in the first place) was considerably more interesting, there, too, were a few things that bugged me.

The first one was the way Morse immediately pegs the rape and murder victim as a potential seductress who brought on her own fate. Even though there is nothing in the monography that suggests this, from this moment on, he studies the case as if it was a certainty rather than his own interpretation (brought on by a dream that mixed up the case with his other bedside lecture – a sleazy novel, to boot). And of course the author has him be right and the subsequent discoveries support this initially unfounded view of the victim´s character.

Then, when Morse´s assistant – doing some research for him – comes across a Victorian trunk bearing the initials “JD” in police archives (Joanna´s initials from her previous marriage), he immediately considers it to belong to this case, which he is not very familiar with. Without any actual investigation or documentation supporting this guess, both he and Morse treat the items found in the trunk, as if it was fact that they had belonged to Joanna, they draw conclusions from them and don´t even consider the possibility that there might have been more than one person with those initials involved with a police case during the last 120 years. And these are supposed to be seasoned police officers. 

The height of Joanna plays another important role in Morse´s solution. He finds out about it by visiting her childhood home, and after some search, discovering marks where her parents had documented both her and her brother´s growth on a wall. But the latest measurement for Joanna – who was born in 1821 – dates from 1841, the year in which she married her first husband. While it is believable that a family would document their children´s growth like this, why would they do it well into the children´s adulthood? Most girls have reached their final height by the time they are 16 or 17, so it is quite unlikely that Joanna´s parents would mark the wall beyond that, and very likely, they would have stopped even sooner. It wouldn´t even make much of a difference to the case whether Joanna´s height as an adult was established at 16 or at 20, but the way it stands, it is one more thing about this novel that doesn´t sit right. 

All in all, it was a reasonably entertaining read but it did not make me want to read more from that series, or author. And for the life of me I can´t see why this novel received the Gold Dagger Award in 1989 for best crime novel of the year – unless everything else published that year was even worse.

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