The Wench is Dead by Colin Dexter

An Inspector Morse book, The Wench is Dead is the 8th in the series, first published in 1989. This is a bit different from the other Morse books in that it is historical crime fiction – no current cases are investigated.

The wench is dead

Morse is in hospital being treated for a perforated ulcer. Whilst recovering he is given a book called Murder on the Oxford Canal by the wife of a recently deceased patient at the hospital. It’s an account of the investigation and trial that followed the death of Joanna Franks in 1859. She had been found at Duke’s Cut on the Oxford Canal. As he reads, Morse becomes convinced that the two boatmen hanged for her murder and a third man who had been transported to Australia were innocent.

Dexter based his book on an account of a Victorian murder in 1839, that of 37-year-old Christina Collins as she travelled the Trent and Mersey Canal atRugeley, Staffordshire, on the Staffordshire Knot en route to London. It reminded me of Josephine Tey’s novel, The Daughter of Time in which Inspector Alan Grant, also recovering in hospital, investigates the murder of the Princes in the Tower.

Morse enlists the help of Sergeant Lewis as well as that of Christine Greenaway, the beautiful daughter of one of the other patients. She works as a librarian at the Bodleian Library. So he is able to study original source material as well as the account in the published book. Morse finds it an absorbing puzzle, like a tricky cryptic crossword, and the more he read and thought about it the more questions came to his mind. He was not satisfied that the conclusions drawn at the trial about the forensic and pathological evidence were right. He felt uneasy about reported conversations between the various people involved:

… all of it was wrong somehow. Wrong if they were guilty. It was if some inexperienced playwright had been given a murder-plot, and then had proceeded to write page after page of inappropriate, misleading and occasionally contradictory dialogue. (page 133)

I thought it was ingenious and compelling reading, very well constructed and very clever. By the time he leaves the hospital Morse is convinced that he has solved the mystery. It’s a tale of  intrigue, lust and deception, with more than a few twists and turns.

Reading Challenges: Mount TBR Reading Challenge, 20 Books of Summer 2016 , Vintage Cover Silver Age Scavenger Hunt: in the category of a Building (not a house) – the front cover of my copy shows the Hertford Bridge, popularly known as the Bridge of Sighs, which joins two parts of Hertford College over New College Lane in Oxford.

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