8/13 of the series of mysteries involving Chief Inspector Morse and I was looking forward to this book, safe in the knowledge that it had secured for Colin Dexter the CWA Gold Dagger, for 'Best Crime Novel of the Year' (1989). Certainly the storyline was something of a departure, in that Morse deploys his formidable cerebral resources to solve a murder reportedly committed in 1859 and for which two men were hanged. Moreover, for the most part, Morse is hospitalised for treatment of a perforated ulcer and yet, this enables his faculties to be given full rein, albeit he also enlists the help of DS Lewis and a visitor who works at the Bodleian Library to undertake the leg work.
The John Radcliffe Hospital proves a fertile territory for Morse to fantasize about the nursing fraternity and flirt with several women ensnared by his blue eyes, though youthful nurses and faltering health do also bring the Chief Inspector uncomfortably before the realization that he is getting older, with a diminishing future.
The book is shorter than most in the series, but the pace of the story is well maintained and the crime took place on the Oxford Canal, when narrow-boats remained crucial to the lifeblood of commerce, giving the plot an additional curiosity value.The fact that two boatmen had also been found guilty of the murder of Joanna Franks, an attractive passenger on the Pickford & Co.'s express (or 'fly'), non-stop boat-ride to London and been sentenced to death, while a third was subject to transportation, simply added to a frisson of suspense. As Morse sought to critique the original investigation at a distance of more than 150 years, the reader bears witness to a consummate puzzle-solver, revelling in the mental challenge! This may be the most vulnerable that we have seen Morse so far and yet, in this tale, he is also at his most perceptive and most likable.