Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Alphabet in Crime Fiction - The Jewel That Was Ours by Colin Dexter

This week’s stop on the alphabet in crime fiction meme’s perilous journey is the letter “J.” Thanks to the leadership of Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise, we’re all still safe – thus far ; ). My choice for this letter is Colin Dexter’s The Jewel That Was Ours. Published in 1991, it’s the ninth of his Inspector Morse series.

As The Jewel That Was Ours opens, we meet three hosts who are preparing to welcome a group of American tourists to Oxford. Sheila Williams is a liaison and event organizer for the university. Dr. Theodore Kemp is the philandering curator of the Ashmolean Museum who, as the novel begins, abruptly breaks off his relationship with Sheila, who’s been his mistress for a few months. John Ashendon is the tour’s leader. With everything in readiness, the busload of tourists arrives on schedule, and the visitors are settled into the elegant Randolph Hotel. Among the tourists are Eddie Stratton and his wife, Laura, Phil Aldrich, Janet Roscoe, Howard and Shirley Brown, and Sam and Vera Kronquist. The high point of the group’s tour of Oxford is to be Laura Stratton’s presentation of the Wolvercote Tongue, part of a jeweled Saxon belt buckle, to the Ashmolean. Late in the afternoon of the group’s arrival, Laura Stratton suddenly dies of a heart attack while she’s in her bathtub, and her handbag, in which she’s been keeping the Wolvercote Tongue, is stolen. Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis are called in to look into the theft.

At first, Morse and Lewis treat this investigation as a routine incident. Statements are taken from all of the tourists and their hosts, and the detectives begin to sift through what’s been said. Everything changes the next afternoon, though, when Theodore Kemp is found murdered. Morse suspects that Kemp’s murder is connected with the theft of the Wolvercote Tongue, so he and Lewis investigate the cases simultaneously. The more that Morse and Lewis find out about Kemp, the more they realize that there’s more behind the theft than they thought, and that more than one person had a good motive to murder Theodore Kemp. Kemp’s wife, Marion, has two motives; first, he’s been unfaithful to her multiple times. Also, Kemp was responsible for a car accident in which a young woman was killed, and Marion left with a permanent spine injury that confined her to a wheelchair. Kemp’s colleague, Cedric Downes, is also a major suspect; his wife, Lucy, has been having affair with Kemp. In fact, it’s to be with Lucy that Kemp broke off his relationship with Sheila Williams. For just that reason, Sheila herself is also a suspect. And then there are the members of the tour group, nearly all of whom are hiding secrets.

Morse and Lewis slowly unravel the tissue of lies, deceptions and faked alibis and finally find out the real truth about the Wolvercote Tongue and about the murder of Theo Kemp. It turns out that practically everyone involved in the murder knows more than she or he says, and nearly everyone is hiding something. We also find that Kemp’s death has its roots in a past incident that comes back to haunt him. What’s even more interesting is the connection between that past (and Kemp’s murder) and the theft of the jewel.

Like a jigsaw puzzle, the plot of The Jewel That Was Ours is intellectually fascinating and as such, it’s interesting to see how Morse and Lewis solve it. The relationship that’s finally discovered between Kemp’s murder and the jewel theft is creative and not too unbelievable, and the pacing of the story keeps the reader’s interest from the beginning. But there are several other elements of this story that are even more compelling.

One of them is the interesting and very human characters. The more we learn about the American tourists and their hosts, the more human and believable they become. Most of them are sympathetic characters, and we can really believe why they act as they do. At the end of the story, Dexter makes even the killer a sympathetic character; the motive for the killing is understandable and believable, and we almost wish the killer hadn’t been caught. It’s also interesting to see the inter-relationships among the characters, especially the American tourists.

Another very appealing aspect of The Jewel That Was Ours is Morse himself. He, too, proves to be very human, and that makes him all the more likable, despite his crustiness. For example, he soon finds himself very much attracted to Sheila Williams, and she to him. At first, he resists her very blatant invitation, but he feels a very human conflict between his feelings for her and his sense of duty to investigate her as a murder suspect. We can really see how a person might find himself in this situation, and we can also understand Morse’s very “normal” surge of jealousy when he sees Sheila openly flirting with another man. Morse’s investigation of the case also shows his humanity. He follows a line of reasoning that leads him effortlessly and smoothly – to the wrong conclusion. At first, he’s so convinced he’s identified the killer that he’s reluctant to listen to the suspect’s protestations of innocence. He doesn’t even want to hear what his “prize” suspect has to say about what happened on the day Theo Kemp died. We empathize with Morse’s consternation when Lewis phones him with conclusive evidence that Morse’s theory is wrong. We also can understand Morse’s sense of satisfaction and vindication when he figures out who really killed Kemp, and how it’s connected to the jewel theft.

Throughout the novel, Dexter shows in obvious and subtle ways how Morse and Lewis relate to each other, and their dependence on one another. While it’s Morse who makes the deductions that lead to the real solution of the case, it’s Lewis who gets some important evidence. Lewis and Morse work as a very effective team as they interview witnesses and suspects, track down leads, and manage the investigation. Through Lewis’ eyes, we see how brilliant and at the same time, how human Morse is, and we also see how much Morse relies on Lewis.

More for its characterization than for anything else, I recommend The Jewel That Was Ours, even for those who haven't read previous Inspector Morse novels. One doesn’t need to know Morse and Lewis’ history to appreciate the dynamics of their relationship, and one doesn’t need to have read other Morse novels to understand how Morse goes about investigating the case. For those who decide to read the novel, I’d suggest paying very careful attention as you read. Seemingly trivial conversations and insignificant facts turn out to be very important in this novel.

An interesting tidbit about The Jewel That Was Ours:

Quite often, novels are later adapted for television or movies (or both). However, in this case, it’s quite different. The Jewel That Was Ours was adapted from The Wolvercote Tongue, a Season 2 (1987) episode of the Inspector Morse series starring John Thaw as Morse and Kevin Whately as Lewis. The endings of the two stories, though, are quite different (sorry, no more details; I don’t want to spoil the fun for anyone).


  1. By coincidence, I just finished reading Dexter's novel several days ago--which you have now reviewed and recommended--and I thoroughly enjoyed the ways in which Morse sorted out the facts from among the truths and lies offered by the American tourists. Of course, as is typical when I read one of Dexter's novels, I also enjoyed the ways in which Morse dealt with the numerous distractions in his personal life. (I've moved on now to another in the Morse series, and while I am always conscious of the TV series with John Thaw, I am persuaded that the novels are superior to the screenplay versions. The subtleties of the novels' language do not move readily to the screen.)

  2. R.T. - I'm glad that you enjoyed The Jewel That Was Ours; Dexter does do a terrific job, I think, of making sense what the tourists (and their hosts) say and don't say. Morse's ability to get past people's lies and find out what really happened is one of his finer qualities. And of course, his personal distractions make him human, too, which is why he's such a well-drawn character. You are absolutely right, too, about the difference between the novels' use of language and the television show. In fact, the use of language is one of the reason for which I like the Morse series as much as I do.

  3. I don't think I've read this one! Okay, I'm pulling up my library's request list right now and plugging it in. :)

    I just finished your book last night, Margot--great job! You had a fine group of suspects and I liked Williams a lot. You're writing a sequel, right?

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  4. Elizabeth - Thanks for the kind words : ). I'm glad you enjoyed Publish or Perish. I've developed quite a liking for Williams myself, actually; I think we writers tend to do that about our protagonists. And yes, he'll be back. B-Very Flat will be out this spring and Dying to See You is in my laptop...

    ...and I think you'll really like The Jewel That Was Ours. It's got really well-written interactions, lots of secrets and hidden pasts and a solid pace. And of course, grumpy, brilliant, flawed and irresistible Inspector Morse : ).

  5. I've read this book and seen the television episode, with the marvelous Simon Callow playing the doomed curator. This book is a lovely example of opposites; tourists vs. locals and academics vs. townfolk. Poor Morse! I think why I always enjoy him because he's so very human. He makes mistakes, he has flaws, but he's always willing to concede he has made a mistake. However, driving around listening to opera would not be my cup of tea.


  6. Elspeth - You highlight a really interesting aspect of this novel (and other Morse novels as well) - academics vs "town" folk, and in this case, locals vs tourists. That conflict certainly adds to the suspense in the novel and makes the characters that much more interesting. I agree, too, that this novel shows Morse as very much a human being. I find that extremely appealing, too; sleuths that are too perfect and never make mistakes or slip up aren't accessible or really engaging. I'm not a fan of listening to opera while driving, either, but I do like that aspect of Morse's character - it makes him stand out.

  7. Thank you, Gautami, for stopping in, and for sharing your own post. I enjoyed reading your review.