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.

Italian Murder Mystery

I heard about an intriguing murder case in Italy in the news last night. A bizarre discovery was made by firefighters in July 2007 who had been called to a blaze in waste ground, close to a cycle path, in the Magliana suburb of southern Rome. Police who were called to the scene found a skeleton and alongside it a wallet and keys belonging to pensioner Libero Ricci, 77, who lived nearby and who disappeared in November 2003. Initially police believed that he had been the victim of a mugging and that his body had then been burnt but the investigation took a surprise twist when Ricci’s relatives said clothes found near the body were not his. The remains were examined again by pathologists at Rome’s La Sapienza University who established that the bones were not the missing man. Forensic scientists established that the skeleton was not the remains of one person, but was made up from the bones of three women and two men, all aged between 25 and 55 years old, and who died over a 20 year period from the mid 1980s until 2006. DNA from the woman’s skull was compatible with someone related to Ricci. A closer examination of the woman’s skull showed she did not have good dental hygiene and had probably never been to a dentist. Injuries were found on the woman’s skull but because the skull was in such a poor condition it is not clear if they were caused by foul play, the fire or by an animal uncovering the remains.

Rizzi, of the murder section of the Rome Flying Squad, said:”The skull is the only item with an apparent injury but it’s not clear how it was caused. “The other bones do not have injuries but bear in mind we do not have the full body so we don’t know what happened – the skeleton is made up of five different people”. The bones were made up as follows: a woman aged 45-55, who died between 2002 and 2006, a woman aged 20-35, who died between 1992 and 1998 and a female aged 35-45 and who died between 1995 and 2000. The first man is aged 40-50 and died between 2002 and 2006 and the second is aged 25-40 and died between 1986 to 1989. ”It’s possible that the bones were gathered by a collector who killed the five people to make up the full skeleton but at this moment we just don’t know – the only fact we know for certain is that the bones are not that of Libero Ricci.”

(quoted from: http://uk.news.yahoo.com/5/20100212/twl-murder-hunt-after-five-body-skeleton-3fd0ae9.html and http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/worldnews/article-1250262/Murder-riddle-perfect-skeleton-bones-FIVE-different-people.html#ixzz0fQGg2sUg)

Wow. Those five people died at different times, so whoever did this must either have had a long term plan, collecting parts (and, possibly, killing people) for two decades or must have gotten the parts from a graveyard. But then, why not take an entire skeleton? If I were police in this case, I´d check people working in hospitals where amputated limbs are incinerated, and in funeral parlours offering cremation. I suppose a clever perp would be able to sneak out a limb here and there from both places. As the police will be looking for missing people, they probably won´t check those that are not missing but are known to be long dead and buried (at least in parts). But why would someone “fake” a skeleton this way? Or was it all just a sick joke, as someone commented on the Daily Mail article: “This may not be about murder at all. These bones could have been stolen from a medical school or other bone collections. These collections are not well guarded and medical students routinely have unsupervised time with the bones.”

Published in: on February 13, 2010 at 1:53 pm  Leave a Comment  
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