Put a homicide cop in the hospital, bedridden, and have him do nothing but read — or think — about a murder case from a bygone era. Terrible idea, right? Wrong. Because, as Josephine Tey proved nearly 40 years ago in The Daughter of Time (all about whether or not Richard III was a bad guy), this ultimate form of ”armchair detection” can be far livelier than racing around after clues and suspects — if the immobilized sleuth has both brainpower and personality to spare.
Inspector Morse of Oxford, that hard-drinking, Wagner-loving misanthrope so well played by John Thaw on PBS’ Mystery! series, certainly has what it takes in The Wench is Dead. He’s sardonic yet vulnerable, brilliant yet coarse, perversely appealing. So when Morse is hospitalized with a bleeding stomach ulcer, we’re ready and willing to follow his every thought. At first he’s naturally preoccupied with the grim details — and the gallows humor — of the hospital ward. But soon, starved for reading material, Morse picks up an obscure booklet entitled Murder on the Oxford Canal — and quickly immerses himself in the true-crime story of comely Joanna Franks, 38, whose body was found floating in the Oxford Canal in June 1859.
Was Joanna, en route by boat from Liverpool to London (to join her husband), raped and thrown overboard by four drunken, lecherous crewmen? So goes the tale; so went the verdict. Morse, however, finds too many unexplained clues, too many gaps in logic, and he begins constructing an alternative scenario — with research help from loyal Sergeant Lewis. The process is fascinating: Morse’s deductions involve choice bits of Victorian sociology, haunting side trips into urban archaeology, even puns and anagrams. The crime-puzzle’s solution is tricky, elegant, creepy — worthy of Agatha C. in her prime. And there’s just enough emphasis on Morse’s less historical concerns — his abused stomach, his next drink, his prospects (increasingly unlikely) for middle-aged romance — to make this a disarming character study as well as mystery entertainment at its lean, clever best.