Colin Dexter's The Way Through the Woods

In 1990, Britain’s Crime Writers Association identified Inspector Morse as the most famous English detective of the day. The Inspector Morse series is set in Colin Dexter’s native Oxford, a place well-suited to the academic ambience of these novels. Trained in the classics at Cambridge, Dexter taught Latin and Greek for 13 years. Like his detective, he is an avid fan of crosswords and has won national championships in them. Appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire for services to literature, Colin Dexter has won two Silver Daggers, two Gold Daggers, and the coveted Cartier Diamond Dagger award, the latter given for the body of his work. He is a member of London’s elite Detection Club.

Dexter’s 10th Inspector Morse novel, The Way Through the Woods, begins most unusually in a church confessional. The suspect not only admits to committing a crime but also asks the priest to report it to the police. The action then shifts to Lyme Regis where the vacationing Inspector Morse pours over a complex “riddle-me-re” poem in The Times, one that was submitted anonymously to police and contains clues to the whereabouts of a Swedish girl’s missing body (17).

In The Way Through the Woods, Dexter presents a series of characters and situations that initially appear unrelated. Early in the investigation, we are told that events seemed “discreet and only semi-sequential”; it was a time “when some of the protagonists in the Swedish maiden case were moved to their new positions on the chessboard, but before the game was yet begun” (91). Eventually a web of connections emerges amongst various elements. Like the Golden Age mystery novelists, Dexter focuses on the mystery as a “game,” an intellectual exercise that both readers and the detective enjoy. Colin Dexter is indeed the clue-puzzle creator par excellence. The strength of the novel is the ingenious plotting of the narrative. Like Dan Brown (see my post on The Lost Symbol), Dexter revels in cryptograms, anagrams, and secret meanings. Stasio calls the story “dazzling.”

“Not since Sherlock Holmes,” claims The Times, “has a fictional detective captured the imagination of the British public in the same way as Colin Dexter’s irascible, intellectual, crossword-solving, opera-singing, ale-quaffing, monosyllabically-named Morse” (Berlins 2008). Love him or hate him, Morse is unorthodox, quixotic, headstrong, and sometimes wrong in his conclusions. Stasio describes him as “the most prickly, conceited and genuinely brilliant detective since Hercule Poirot.” As Watson is to Holmes, Sergeant Lewis is the prosaic foil to the brilliant, eccentric Morse.

Fans of academia-related mysteries such as Amanda Cross’s Kate Fansler series or Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn novels will love the university-town setting, the erudite detective, the literary epigraphs, and the scholarly allusions scattered throughout the novel. Fans of detective novels in general will enjoy this exceptionally clever mystery.

Berlins, Marcel. “The 50 Greatest Crime Writers.” The Times. April 19, 2008.
Dexter, Colin. The Way Through the Woods. New York: Crown Publishers, 1992.