On the surface at least, the British zeal for murder mysteries is a curious phenomenon. After all, here's a nation of 55 million gentle souls who commit fewer actual homicides in a year than occur in any self-respecting medium-size U.S. city. Indeed it's a safe bet that since the time of Sherlock Holmes, fictional English detectives have solved far more homicides and infinitely more cleverly than have their real-life counterparts. In some literary circles the classic British mystery novel is regarded as an art form as refined as ballet.
But art form or not, it's certainly possible to weary of the things, with their infinitely subtle and often quite priggish detectives-their vicarages, country estates, and obsession with the sexual hypocrisies of the upper classes. At first glance, Chief Inspector Morse of the Thames Valley Police, the protagonist of Colin Dexter's The Way Through the Woods, the latest in a series of Inspector Morse novels, could be mistaken for another in a long line of investigative stuffed shirts. To be sure, Dexter brings all the familiar machinery of the genre to bear upon his story. Most chapters of the novel are preceded by a literary epigraph from a figure such as Shakespeare, George Bernard Shaw, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and the inevitable Oscar Wilde. And Morse himself, when we first encounter him, is on holiday in picturesque Lyme Regis, visiting sites made famous in the works of Hardy, Coleridge, and John Fowles.
Ah, but not for long. For no sooner has Morse begun a most sincere effort to seduce an attractive woman staying at the same hotel after utilizing his police contacts to learn her identity and marital status than he spots an intriguing item in The Times. The newspaper's literary editor, it seems, has received a request from Morse's own department in Oxford seeking assistance in puzzling out the meaning of an erudite, willfully obscure poem sent by an anonymous correspondent who appears to know where to find the corpse of a young Swedish woman a tourist and bird-watcher long missing and presumed murdered.
It's precisely the sort of conundrum sure to induce Morse's less imaginative superiors to summon him back to work. Which is all very well. Their amorous possibilities aside, Morse actually hates vacations and prefers to get his relaxation much as he gets his nourishment: ''Usually he took most of his calories in liquid form...he would willingly exchange an entrée or a dessert for an extra ration of alcohol.'' Some of the chief inspector's most penetrating breakthroughs have occurred when he's sodden with booze.
But not all of Morse's colleagues are thrilled by the ensuing hubbub in The Times' letter columns, as an entire nation of amateur literary critics, sleuths, and cryptographers throws itself into the ''Swedish Maiden'' mystery, ''scaling ever steeper and steeper peaks of interpretive ingenuity,'' in the words of one huffy Scotland Yard official who considers the whole thing an elaborate hoax. As his investigation proceeds, however, the bibulous chief inspector has reason to believe differently. Besides, what better way to engage his curiosity and meet women upon whom to exercise what one exasperated but intrigued party calls his ''conceited, civilized, ruthless, gentle, boozy, sensitive'' charms than to seek out the secret of Karin Eriksson's disappearance?
What a remarkably randy lot these Brits have become, judging by the evidence of this sly, subtle, fascinating, and unfailingly surprising literary entertainment. Even Dr. Laura Hobson, the outspokenly feminist pathologist from Newcastle, turns out to be a real ''smasher'' in the view of Morse and his ever-helpful assistant, Sergeant Lewis. Readers may be tempted to wonder what role Dexter has in mind for her in future episodes. But one of the charms of this remarkable series is that you can be sure she will be back. A