Last Seen Wearing (1976) by Colin Dexter

Two years, three months and two days ago, teenager Valerie Taylor disappeared into thin air. Nobody knew if she was dead of alive, but after two years, three months and two days, the trail was so cold that nobody seemed to care any more. Apart from her parents, of course. And Inspector Ainley, the investigating officer who wouldn’t let the case go. But Ainley died in a car crash before something turned the case on its head – a letter from Valerie asking people not to look for her.

The case is handed to Inspector Morse, who is immediately convinced that Valerie is dead. His focus becomes fixed on the staff of school that Valerie was attending, and he soon becomes certain of Valerie’s fate and who was responsible. When one of the people involved in the case is murdered, however, it seems all of Morse’s theories are now in tatters…

The second Morse novel from Colin Dexter, and it’s an interesting thing. I mentioned when I reviewed the debut Last Bus To Woodstock eight years ago – blimey, it didn’t seem that long ago – that it was spoiled by some crass comments about rape. I’ll be honest, Dexter’s writing about the female characters is the biggest problem here. Basically, it seems that women exist to be described by their breast size, how few clothes they wear and how keen they are to have sex with anyone or, in one case, everyone. Morse at one point spends a car journey with Lewis fantasising about disrobing a suspect…

It’s all rather distracting but it’s not the only problem I have with this one. Basically Morse is an idiot here. He comes up with theory after theory, citing them as gospel until the theory falls apart. And the one time he comes close to the truth, he convinces himself that it’s another failure on his part.

There’s a good idea at the centre of the story as to what is going on, but it’s a pretty simple one that is expanded to book length by Morse’s failings. It’s hard to say an awful lot about the story as it seems to go round in circles for a while. Granted, it does a better job of the reveal that the TV adaptation does, but at the end of the day, this isn’t one of the strongest titles in the series.

12 comments

  1. What a terrible book cover! Yes, the early Morse novels I only read a great deal later, after I was hooked by the later ones and the TV series. Which just goes to show that we (and publishers) need to be patient with an author settling into a series and maturing.

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  2. The differences between the book and the TV adaptation are fairly huge and tend to emphasise the airbrushing of the Morse character in relation to his drinking and interest in “erotica”. There is an earthy quality to the the earlier books that I quite like as I think Dexter wasn’t trying to make his detective especially attractive or romantic. That really only happened on TV. But yes, the plot just goes round and round, having a good time theorizing. I quite like that but you can see why the TV version changed it so much to give it more narrative momentum. NICHOLAS QUINN, both book and TV, is an absolute favourite of mine.

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    • The erotica – here taken to the extreme as Morse fantasises about derobing a suspect rather than talk to Lewis in a car journey – and the general tone concerning almost every female character, coupled with some of the dialogue in Last Bus To Woodstock, does concern me. Almost every male character sees the female characters as opportunities for sex, and little else. I’m pretty sure things improve as the series goes on. I’d say the book is dated, but I’m not convinced this sort of thing – almost noir aesthetics coupled with the police procedural – was acceptable back then.

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      • I think there are a lot of books from the 70s that are pretty similar in aporoach tbh … though, as I say, I think Dexter is deliberately setting a particular tone that Is credible if not always likeable as a counter to the Mayhem Parva school. He has the same approach with most of his stories, which tend to revolve around sex and how it messes people’s lives up (the plots are not about a lost inheritance among aristos, let’s put it that way). And I still think “earthy” is a good description 😁 … not least because the slightly seedy and down-to-earth and usually plausible characters and situations offset the very unlikely but thoroughly ingenious crime plots.

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      • I think what bothers me, and makes me think that just possibly it’s a reflection of the author, is that it’s not just how the male characters act and think, but that the female characters act as if in a dirty old man’s fantasy as well. I take your point that this is a deliberate counterpoint, but it does clash with the ingenious plotting to my eyes. In this book, at least…

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