THE RIDDLE OF THE THIRD MILE (1983) by Colin Dexter

This book in the Inspector Morse series generally sees little love from either critics or fans – and was changed greatly when adapted for TV (even the title, to ‘The Last Enemy’). Is this a book that is worth reclaiming?

“Morse was his hero, and always would be. But even heroes had their momentary weaknesses, as Lewis had so often learned.”

I submit this review for Bev’s 2017 Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt; and Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme hosted by Todd Mason over at Sweet Freedom.

We begin, very unusually, with a sequence set in the past – specifically, 1942 and the desert campaign at El Alamein when three of the main characters in the story were soldiers. After this prologue, we rejoin the then present day of the early 1980s. Our protagonist, Chief Inspector Morse, is now aged 52 and starting to feel the wear and tear of his lifestyle so is attempting to lay off the booze and nicotine, but without much success. He and Sergeant Lewis are called in when a dismembered corpse is fished out of the river – the head, arms and legs and have all been hacked off, making identification virtually impossible. But Morse thinks it may well be linked to the unexpected absence of a don from Lonsdale, Dr Browne-Smith, who not only served during the El Alamein campaign but was also one of the Inspector’s professors when he was studying at Oxford. But is it really his body? And what links his disappearance with a furniture removal firm and a high-class brothel? And what of the letter in the pocket of the trousers found on the cadaver, which lead to a topless bar in Soho? Before the book has finished, all answers will be found together with the missing parts of the body – as well as another four dead men!

So how does this novel hold up?

“Aren’t you making it all a bit too complicated?”
“Could be,” conceded Morse.

After making his decent if unspectacular debut with Last Bus to Woodstock (1975), Dexter had taken a leap forward in terms of character and plotting with Last Seen Wearing (1976), a story that goes round and round the houses with its missing person plot without necessarily getting very far but none the less doing so very entertainingly. But it was with his next three books, probably his best, that the author really established himself as a master of the puzzle mystery – The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn (1977) (reviewed here), Service of All the Dead (1979) (possibly my all time favourite of the books) and The Dead of Jericho (1981) – while also firmly establishing the Morse and Lewis partnership. The plots should belong to the Golden Age, given how unlikely and convoluted they are, but the focus on the sexual impulses that drive them belongs to the modern day, and this is perhaps Colin Dexter’s greatest achievement. The Morse mysteries should be cozy given their literary antecedents in the works of John Dickson Carr, et al., but they are not, rooted as they are in a sordid and very recognisable everyday reality, buffered by the beauty of Oxford and the cunning of the storytelling.

Chapter Nine – In which Morse’s mind drifts elsewhere as the police surgeon enunciates some of the scientific principles concerning immersion in fluids.

Having published perhaps his three strongest and most cunningly conceived books in quick succession, Dexter seems to me to have taken a step back with The Riddle of the Third Mile. Certainly, its overly complicated plot recalls Last Seen Wearing in that the fun all comes from our detectives going round and round with all the various possibilities, until the right one emerges. There is much ingenuity on display, and less coincidence that one might first think as Morse’s early involvement proves to have been part of the plan all along. But no reader could possibly solve this story it seems to me as it is so fantastically unlikely – its main purpose is just to befuddle the reader as entertainingly as possible, which is does superbly. It is also a book that is important to the canon because we are given a very extended flashback to Morse’s youth and the love affair that would ultimately see him leave his studies at Oxford, all of which would later inspire Daniel Boyle’s TV episode Dead on Time, one of the best of the Morse episodes not directly based on a Dexter story.

Dr Russell: “I do wish you wouldn’t call me ‘your dear,’ Morse.”
Morse: “How does one address a lady pathologist first thing in the morning?”
Dr Russell: “Well, ‘Doctor’ would do.”

The TV version takes the basic elements of the characters and the story (including Morse’s tooth ache) but makes something almost entirely new from it. The pathologist Max is replaced with Dr Grayling Russell, who would appear throughout the third season as a romantic foil to Morse, while none of the names of the characters from the book survive as they are variously mixed and matched. The basic outline – the trunk of a dismembered body is found in a canal and evidence points to an Oxford don with a terminal illness amidst a background of in-fighting at a College (Lonsdale becomes Beaumont) – is retained and, while the various elements are recognisable, they have been altered to create a more streamlined and less convoluted plot. No wonder then that the novel is not credited directly (Dexter in fact only gets a ‘story’ credit). It doesn’t help that we only meet a crucial character in the final 5 minutes as this tends to reinforce a sense that the story is largely at one stage removed, with a lot of connecting scenes oddly absent, making the effect somewhat choppy and episodic, as we are not always sure how Morse comes to his conclusions.

Having said that, the casting is very good with Barry Foster especially memorable as an egotistical master; a scene with an opaque Whitehall mandarin (one of many original creations of the script not found in the book) is also highly amusing . The result then is an entertaining if rather bland entry – but then the third season of Inspector Morse was far and away the most formulaic of all seven, in keeping with producer Chris Burt’s general philosophy (this was the only series of Morse he produced, later going on to produce the Lewis spin-off in the same manner).
The Inspector Morse Mysteries

  1. Last Bus to Woodstock (1975)
  2. Last Seen Wearing (1976)
  3. The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn (1977) – review
  4. Service of All the Dead (1979)
  5. The Dead of Jericho (1981)
  6. The Riddle of the Third Mile (1983)
  7. The Secret of Annexe 3 (1986)
  8. The Wench is Dead (1989)
  9. The Jewel That Was Ours (1991)
  10. The Way Through the Woods (1992)
  11. Morse’s Greatest Mystery and Other Stories (1993 / 94)
  12. The Daughters of Cain (1994)
  13. Death is Now My Neighbour (1996)
  14. The Remorseful Day (1999)

Inspector Morse / The Last Enemy (1989)
Director: James Scott
Producer: Chris Burt
Screenplay: Peter Buckman
Cinematography: Michael Davis
Art Direction: Rod Stratfold
Music: Barrington Pheloung
Cast: John Thaw, Kevin Whately, Amanda Hillwood, James Grout, Barry Foster, Michael Aldridge, Sian Thomas, Beatie Edney, Lana Morris

For a detailed rundown on the book and the TV version, its various references, the cast, and its location, you must visit Chris Sullivan’s fine website, Morse, Lewis and Endeavour.

I submit this reviews for Bev’s Silver Age Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt in the ‘statue’ category:

***** (3 fedora tips out of 5)

This entry was posted in 2017 Silver Age Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt, Colin Dexter, England, Inspector Morse, London, Oxford, Tuesday's Overlooked Film. Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to THE RIDDLE OF THE THIRD MILE (1983) by Colin Dexter

  1. Colin says:

    You’re really digging into these Morse titles of late. Even though I have yet to start them, I certainly appreciate the critical evaluation of which ones work better.

  2. Margot Kinberg says:

    This one certainly isn’t of the quality that some of the other Morses are, Sergio, at least in my opinion. Still, I always respected Dexter for trying different things (like that war campaign scene). And even a not-the-best Dexter is heaps better than a lot of other people’s best…

  3. Santosh Iyer says:

    Yes, this is a bit of a disappointment after the previous 3 very good novels. It is massively over-complicated.
    An interesting bit. We learn from chapter 8 of this book that Morse suffers from acrophobia, arachnophobia, myophobia, ornithophobia and necrophobia !

  4. I’m psyched that you posted this. I picked this book up three weeks ago at a used mystery bookstore in the Raleigh, North Carolina airport. It was the only non-Christie/Sayers/Marsh title that stood out to me, and I recalled that people had commented positively about it (whether that is actually true, I don’t know).

    Your review suggest the book is ok, although not a classic. The comments suggest it is acceptable. Any thoughts on this being my first Dexter title?

  5. tracybham says:

    This is very interesting, Sergio. You have definitely convinced me to move on to Service of All the Dead and The Dead of Jericho … and I already have copies of those.

  6. I don’t remember this one at all – I read the early ones as they came out in p/b, perhaps this was the point where I started to drift away and became less of a regular reader. It sounds bizarre enough to be quite tempting, and I know I am under instruction from you to watch more of the TV versions!

  7. Pingback: 2017 Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Wrap-up | Tipping My Fedora

  8. Pingback: “The Riddle of the Third Mile” by Colin Dexter – Tangled Yarns

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