Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Crime fiction has produced a group of detectives who are so distinctive and original that they’ve achieved real fame. I’m sure you can think of your own personal favourites. One of those famous sleuths is Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse. So I decided that In The Spotlight wouldn’t be complete without a look at one of his adventures. Today, let’s take a closer look at The Daughters of Cain.
The novel begins with a quick glimpse of several characters whose lives intersect, some in unexpected ways, and all of whom will be deeply affected by the events in the book. Julia Stevens is a teacher at the Proctor Memorial School. Kevin Costyn is one of her pupils. Brenda Brooks is Julia Stevens’ cleaning lady. We also meet Dr. Felix McClure, former Ancient History don at Wolsey College, Oxford, and Eleanor “Ellie” Smith, a prostitute whom he regularly visits.
When McClure is found stabbed to death in his home, Morse and Lewis are put on the case. As they get started, they learn more about McClure and the people in his life. One of the things that they learn is that McClure was very much concerned about students’ welfare. In fact, when a student of McClure’s committed suicide, McClure took a real interest in the case. He discovered that his student was mixed up in illegal drugs and that his former scout, Ted Brooks, might be involved in a local drugs ring. He threatened to expose Brooks, and thus Brooks becomes the prime suspect in McClure’s murder.
The case turns out to be not so simple when Brooks disappears and is later found dead. Morse is sure that the two deaths are related, so he and Lewis work to tie together McClure’s and Brooks’ murders. As they do so, they slowly discover the tangled web of relationships among Julia Stevens, Brenda Brooks, Kevin Costyn and Ellie Smith. They also find out how these people’s lives intersected with those of McClure and Ted Brooks, and it’s in those very relationships that we find motive for the murders.
Several important elements are woven through this novel and tie it together. One of those elements is the detailed work involved in any police investigation. This is a police procedural, so we follow along as Morse and Lewis look for personal, financial and other evidence that points to the killer. We also “listen in” on witness interviews and conversations between Morse and Lewis about the evidence. Morse is, of course, a brilliant detective (and I’ll get back to that in a moment), but this case is not solved by some magic he has. It’s also a matter of painstaking gathering of evidence, and the sense that the police make of it.
Another important element that comes through in this novel is the gulf between social classes. Dexter doesn’t preach about class, but it’s quite clear throughout this novel that some people are privileged and some are not. For instance, Ellie Smith has a working-class background. She’s intelligent, but not particularly educated, and she’s certainly not wealthy. Here’s her reflection when, at one point in the novel, she makes the painful decision to have an abortion:
“…in real life she wasn’t important at all; nor ever would be. After all, she wouldn’t exactly be riding up to the abortion clinic that Wednesday in a Roller, now would she? God no. Just standing on that perishing Platform Number 2, waiting for the early bloody train up to bloody Birmingham.”
The dialogue, too, reflects the differences in class that permeate the novel. Here’s a snippet of a conversation between Ellie Smith and Inspector Morse:
“I usually take most of my calories in liquid form at lunchtime.” [Morse]
“Funny, isn’t it? You bein’ a copper and all that – and then drinkin’ all the beer you do.”
“Don’t worry. I’m the only person in Oxford who gets more sober the more he drinks.”
“How do you manage that?”
“Years of practice. I don’t recommend it, though.”
“Wouldn’t help you much with a bleedin’ Breathalyser, would it?”
Besides the humour in this conversation, it also gives an insight into another element that’s woven through the novel – Inspector Morse himself. As Morse fans know, he’s unorthodox. He spends at least as much time in his local as he does in the office. In fact, at the beginning of the novel, Superintendant Strange calls Morse to tell him about the McClure murder and when he finds Morse in his office, he says,
“Morse? You’re there are you? I thought you’d probably be in the pub by now.”
Morse is, of course, much more complicated than just an alcohol-loving cop. He’s fond of language, and in a few places in the novel, he corrects Ellie Smith’s use of English, to her frustration. He’s also quite fond of crossword puzzles. At the beginning of the novel, in fact, he’s working on a crossword puzzle and is stuck on the clue Kick in the pants?. The answer turns out to be Hip Flask, a particularly poignant answer, as it turns out.
Morse is also a brilliant detective and is often able to put the pieces of a puzzle together and make connections that others don’t see. In this novel, he connects the characters to each other and to the victims and that’s the key to the case.
In fact, those connections are another important element that runs throughout this novel. All of the characters are woven together in a web of relationships that Dexter explores as the novel moves on. For instance, Brenda Brooks is Julia Stevens’ cleaning lady. Julia Stevens is Kevin Costyn’s teacher. There are also complicated relationships between those characters and Ellie Smith, and both Ted Brooks and Felix McClure are involved in this web as well. As Morse and Lewis discover this network and untangle the various connections among the characters, we get to know each of the characters better, and we learn how they are involved with each other. This network turns out to be very important in solving the murders of McClure and Brooks.
Morse himself gets involved in this complicated web as he gets to know the various people involved in the case. Most particularly, he develops a fascinating relationship with Ellie Smith, whom he finds both sympathetic and attractive. Morse himself is no angel, and he has a great deal of empathy for Ellie, the choices she’s made and the situations in which she finds herself. Ellie falls in love with Morse, too, against her will. Despite their strong feelings for each other, each knows that Morse is a cop investigating two murders in which Ellie is a suspect. Still, they have a genuine bond. At the end of the novel, when it’s clear what happened to both McClure and Brooks, Ellie Smith disappears, and the novel ends on a haunting note that reveals much about her relationship with Morse:
“And above all in Morse’s life there remains the searching out of Ellie Smith, since as a police officer that is his professional duty and, as a man, his necessary purpose.”
The complicated, brilliant character of Morse, the network of involvements and relationships and the echoes of class difference tie this novel together. The backdrop of time-consuming and sometimes-difficult police work and the partnership of Morse and Lewis give this novel a real “police procedural” authenticity, too. But what do you think? Have you read The Daughters of Cain? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming up on In the Spotlight
Monday, 20 September/Tuesday, 21 September – A Taste for Death – P.D. Martin
Monday, 27 September/Tuesday, 28 September – Strong Poison – Dorothy Sayers
Monday 4 October/Tuesday 5 October – The Black Ice – Michael Connelly