Book 11/13 of the crime novels involving Chief Inspector Morse and as the great detective contemplates retirement with his boss (Superintendent Strange), we are faced with the prospect of an illustrious career running into the buffers. Certainly this investigation, which starts with the murder of Dr Felix McClure, has a familiar level of complexity, but it also seems to lack the dynamism of earlier challenges. The case passes belatedly to Morse and Lewis, when the wife of the incumbent detective, Inspector Phillotson, falls ill. Typically cynical, an underwhelmed Morse wonders whether the withdrawal of his colleague has more to do with Phillotson's competence than the health of his partner. Still, the subsequent death of Mrs Phillotson pricks Morse's conscience and perhaps connecting with a sense of his own mortality, he discreetly contacts the bereaved in an unusual demonstration of empathy. Indeed, the book is tinged with a sombre tone throughout, as Morse simultaneously navigates the murder inquiry and his own dip in health, even provoking unlikely, though short-lived, attempts to curtail smoking and drinking!
As always, the loyal and diligent DS Lewis anchors Morse in mundane reality.
"Lewis said nothing. He knew well where his duties lay in circumstances such as these: to do the donkey-work; to look through everything, without much purpose, and often without much hope."
Yet, when Morse shares his intention to retire the following autumn, the sadness experienced by Lewis is magnified by an impending sense of loss and the realization that a dimming of his brightest days must also follow. Lewis is conscious that his function is largely a supporting role, to undertake the 'heavy lifting' that enables the divaesque Morse to give vent to his exceptional powers of deduction, but Lewis is also a dedicated cheerleader and his undoubted optimism in his hero's capacity is endearing.
Given Morse's lustful tendencies towards the fairer sex, it is perhaps poignant that this latest case should centre on three female suspects. Amid the bewildering convergence of murder, drugs, prostitution and theft, Lewis echoes the thoughts of the reader when he observes, "Morse nearly always got things hopelessly, ridiculously wrong at the start of every case", but we can also share Lewis's expectation that the ability of Morse to unlock the presenting puzzle, will culminate in the similarly predictable resolution.
I have commented previously on the implausibility of Morse's dalliance with beautiful protagonists (sometimes suspects) and again in this book his Achilles heel is exposed. Still, as the character ages and becomes more physically frail, there is something mildly pathetic and sad, as Morse succumbs to his own vulnerability, as well as dicing with that of another bruised soul. However, there is something intriguing about flawed genius and this book is as absorbing as those which have gone before, but perhaps I share a touch of Lewis's foreboding and disappointment at the inexorable dimming of such brilliance. Just two book left in the series...