This entry in the Inspector Morse series is highly reminiscent of The Daughter of Time, the much-admired (and often over-praised) classic by Josephine Tey that casts her hero, Inspector Alan Grant of Scotland Yard, in the role of an amateur historian. Here, too, a bedridden policeman escapes boredom by reading about a murder from the distant past. Here, too, discrepancies and oddities in the traditional account of the crime incite professional skepticism in the policeman and spur him to review the surviving documentation of the case. Here, too, the policeman enlists the aid of visiting friends and subordinates, who get swept along by his obsessive interest in opening one of the coldest of cold cases. Here, too, the policeman and his ad hoc investigative team take a version of truth that had withstood scrutiny for decades (or centuries, as in Tey’s novel) and turn that version inside-out. Here, too, an author brings the past to life by the somewhat ironic means of exploring an ancient death. Here, too, the reader encounters in an acutely distilled form the quality that distinguishes the detective story from other genres—the romance of reason, the grand game of ferreting truth out of its hiding place.
The Wench Is Dead proves to be more satisfying than its famous precursor, and the chief reason is easy to identify: Tey, in her book, labors conscientiously within the factual parameters of an actual event—the alleged murder by King Richard III of his two nephews (the fabled “princes in the Tower”)—whereas Dexter places relatively few limits on his creativity. Although he draws inspiration from the true case of a killing that took place in Staffordshire in 1839, he transfigures that event into an episode that takes place only in the space of his own devious mind: the rape and murder by drowning of a young woman named Joanna Franks. This fictional crime occurred in 1859, on or near the Oxford Canal, and in describing the social milieu of that time and that place, Dexter is able to evoke a world that teems with cryptic clues and densely layered personal relationships. (In that respect, this world resembles the late-20th-century Oxford that Morse claims as his usual stomping ground.) Dexter also improves on the Tey prototype by allowing Morse to transcend the bounds of physical confinement, first by the force of his personality and then through evidence-hunting excursions that take him away from his sickbed. More so than Grant, Morse brings a spirit of urgent action to a narrative that would otherwise consist of interior monologue and seemingly endless dialogue.