A question on the TV show Pointless about the novels of Colin Dexter reminded me I have a few of his books to read, Service of All the Dead being one of them – and it was one of the pointless answers too! So that gave me the push to read it. My copy is a secondhand book – an Omnibus containing The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn as well as Service of All the Dead.
It really is one of the most puzzling crime fiction books I’ve read – if not the most puzzling! CI Morse sums it up himself:
There are some extremely odd points in this case, Lewis – or rather there were – each of them in itself suggestive but also puzzling. They puzzled all of us, and perhaps still do to some extent, because by the time we’d finished we’d got no less than five bodies on our hands and we were never in a position to learn what any of the five could have told us. (page 295)
Morse was on holiday, bored and at a loose end, when, stepping off a bus near St Frideswide’s Church in Oxford, he saw a notice advertising a jumble sale at the church – it seemed to him pre-ordained that he should enter the church. This set in motion his fascination with the death of the churchwarden, killed in the church the previous year and his subsequent discovery of the deaths of four more people. His interest is enhanced by the attraction he feels for Ruth Rawlinson, who cleans the church.
Aided by Sergeant Lewis, he digs into the history of the churchwarden, the vicar and members of the church and uncovers an intricate web of lies and deceit. Morse acts on instinct and consequently both Lewis and myself were in the dark for a great part of this book. He proposes several motives for the murders and alternate scenarios of what had happened before untangling the complex mess. There are plenty of red herrings and twists and turns.
Even though I was lost in the plot I found the book compelling reading – it’s a superbly constructed puzzle. This is certainly not a police procedural in the normal sense – there is little account of forensic evidence for example. It is strong on character and on place. The scene of the murders is St Frideswide’s, a fictional church, possibly based a couple of Oxford churches, St Michael-by-the-North-Gate with a Saxon tower and St Mary Magdalen and it is there in the tower that Morse suffers from his great fear of heights.
Service of All the Dead was first published in 1979. I suppose I must have seen the TV version of this book, as I watched all the episodes and this one was shown in 1987 – I don’t remember it! Inevitably as I read it I could see John Thaw as Morse and Kevin Whately as Lewis.