Sunday, 8 September 2013

Morseology 2: Last Seen Wearing by Colin Dexter

For life was sweet, and we each of us had our own little hopes, and few of us exhibited overmuch anxiety to quit this vale of misery and tears. Valerie had a right to live. Like himself. Like Lewis.

In our first Morseology episode, Last Bus To Woodstock, there was a faint sense of wonder between the lines at how such an iconic crime series had grown from so humble a source. With a slightly difficult ending, in particular, it was hard to escape the feeling that enjoyable though it was, the novel hardly made a standalone case for the phenomenon that Morse has become - successful and much-loved TV series, follow-up and superb Lewis and now the brilliant Endeavour. Morseology was to be all about digging into the actual novels themselves, and seeing what it was all about, where it all comes from. Last Bus To Woodstock turned into an awkward initiation. The fact that nearly a year has gone by before a look at book two speaks for itself.

So, what fun it is to say that Dexter's second outing for Morse, Last Seen Wearing, takes the set-ups and characterisation of the first novel, tightens them, and boots the ball through the sticks from the halfway line. It is immediately clear, within chapters, that it is a significant raising of the game. Taut, brutal in places, deeply characterised, it feels harsh and modern, ahead of its time.

First published, incredibly it seems now, about 8 months before Paul Cook thumped out that drum beat to Steve Jones's guitar to kick start 'Anarchy in the UK', it is somehow hard to place Morse this far back - and yet here he is, and where things seemed somehow dated and difficult in the first book, now there is a very real edge. Here is a detective series stamping out of the post war era as hard in many ways as the Sex Pistols did pop music. Icily, often, the novel crackles with the tensions and fears of that era, and Morse is suddenly a man on a tightrope - one foot in the past, the other, reluctant, in this harsh new world. Endeavour now looks a completely inspired idea in this context, bursting with dramatic possibility for its timeline.

And it is indeed a harsh world this book at hand. Like that surprise ShadePoint hit from last year Fatal Frost this hard second outing for Morse extends the feeling, particularly for those who remember the times, that somehow the 70s and 80s now appear more attached to the post war era than any more substantial kinship to the now. To startling effect, Last Seen Wearing is fiercely of its age, but crucially, just omnisciently out in front. While there are nostalgic moments - the typewriters, the Belisha crossings, the football coupon - there are sharper and more difficult voices from the past. Morse is nearly always drinking, in a bad way, stopping off for pints before interviews, haunting pubs at opening time, driving at what now would be well over the legal limit. This is only quietly questioned, indirectly by Lewis at one point, but generally, Morse is a force of alcohol, mostly unconsciously driven towards it and therefore limited by it. This is not to say that this still doesn't afflict many of us in all walks of life, but it's hard to imagine the clean lines of NCIS accommodating a character like this for very long. And other attitudes are brutal and awful. "Look you miserable wog," growls Morse at one point, to a strip club doorman. "You want a fight?" It leaps out of the page. Speaking of NCIS, at one point Morse removes a murder weapon from the body of a victim himself, spilling pink blood around him. Even in his own 1980s TV series, someone would have had a word.

Hard to imagine all this being tolerated by any of the new crop of forensic investigators, like Bones maybe. Although this 1976 Morse and new 21st Century Bones - a collision course would be highly likely from the get-go. More like Regan from The Sweeney than the gentler Morse of John Thaw, in this book the character's sexual attitudes will be difficult. In Morse's moral struggle between buying The News Of The World or The Sunday Times, between his own personal Victorian pornography or his temptation to to steal some hardcore Danish material during a search, there is detachment in the way Dexter depicts him, his desires, and his collapsing horrified dignity. This conflicted, contradictory character considers himself deeply flawed - Dexter lays him out there, naked. Morse is filled with disgust and self-loathing and it is painful to watch.

While the investigation continues - into the case of a girl missing for over two years - the reader gets to know Morse, to understand his failings, and ultimately his tragedy. He is without question, a genuinely, formally, tragic figure. From the less sure footing of Last Bus To Woodstock, in this first return, Morse steps out as an incredibly well realised character, a difficult and to some extent dangerous one, but compelling, darkly tragic and wanting.

The solving of the crime, as it goes, continues in the style of the first book, a spiralling and dizzying collection of dead ends, mistakes, and good fortune. Much tauter, though, than the debut, this is breathlessly done. At one moment it seems all will be resolved and then hope is dashed to the rocks, with Morse flung to drink and despair, and a real desire to quit the case at one point. Lewis, ill in bed for a significant portion, while beginning to love and admire this forlorn figure of Morse, is frequently in disdain of the leaps of fancy and tortured logic of his thinking. He is like a man almost unable to watch as Morse stumbles hopelessly from one collapsing line of enquiry to the next. Always within touching distance, but frequently looking from the wrong angle. Lewis emerges as a far rounder character here, and the sense of balance and complement begins to take shape. Like all the great crime fiction, the reader is subtly aware of this dynamic, this intensity of characterisation, rising higher above the actual narrative of the detection - until the procedural solution, being desperately important of course, is just not the only thing. Or indeed the only thing that needs solving.

Detective novels by their very nature crave resolution, but the ones that become great, that transcend this, are the ones where another story takes hold this way, where the journey of the investigators themselves, or other people caught up - to the extent that the reader will almost forgive a non-resolution - is just as critical. It becomes essential that these human stories stay true. Like Wallander, for example, we are latterly reading as much for the detective himself, as we are about the crimes he is investigating. The final Wallander, The Troubled Manactually only makes sense in this way, to this kind of invested reader. Dexter may well have stumbled onto Morse as much as his anti-heroic detective does clues, but nonetheless, in this book, the synapses of great characterisation fizz alive. Married to a fairly devastating management of setting in time, the ingredients are all there. The books came first, after all.

So, Dexter would seem to be an important writer, here in the mid 1970s, assisting to signal a shift from the Agatha Christie-like connecting of dots, to a kind of anarchy, where fatalism, nihilism even, risk winning the day - and this is as on-the-border and frightening, if not more so, than the human motivations to crime that frame the detection. Colin Dexter was in his mid-forties when he wrote this novel, so he was no Johnny Rotten in age terms, but Morse's emotional life and world is as much "another country" that this novel seems to speak in its own way of the same collapsing and breaking of society and people as the inchoate roar of Punk. Here in Morse is a man for whom the world is spinning too fast, perhaps, who is beginning to unravel in the face of an existence increasingly at odds with his hopes, but he must try to hang on, by whatever means. His is the boot through the TV at the Grundy interview, and it is equally an understanding of the cartoon characters of desire in the studio. It is no wonder from this second book alone, that an icon was born. Morse's fate suddenly becomes lit up, like a fire, and we are lost to him:

Morse slept fitfully that night. Broken images littered his mind, like the broken glass strewn about the rubbish tip. He tossed and turned, but the merry-ground was out of control. and at 3.00 a.m. he got up to make himself a cup of tea. Back in bed, with the light left on, he tried to concentrate his closed, swift-darting eyes on to a point about three inches in front of his nose, and gradually the spinning mechanism began to slow down, slower and slower, and then it stopped.