Monday, September 13, 2010

In The Spotlight: Colin Dexter's The Daughters of Cain

Hello, All,

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


  1. I don't think I've read that one but I've seen the movie. I love Morse. He's great as a detective but never succeeds with love or life. It's sad that the actor that played him in his films died. Loved your spotlight, as usual.


  2. Clarissa - Thank you :-). And you put that so very well, too! Morse succeeds when it comes to his job, but love always seems to elude him. I agree completely with you about the show, too: John Thaw was Morse, and it was truly sad to learn of his death.

  3. Okay, another one for the TBR shelf. I missed this one. Good analysis, Margot. Made me want to head right out to the library.

  4. John - Thank you :-). This really is a good 'un, and if you like Colin Dexter, I think you'll like this one.

  5. A fine analysis - as usual!

    No spoilers, but the crime and the solution to it are very memorable indeed. Apart from that, one of the strongest aspects of this novel is the characters, I think. The women, the relationship between them and their motivation.

  6. Dorte - Thank you :-). You are right; the characters of the women in this novel, and the way they interact, and their behavior, yes, they are very strong aspects of this novel. So is crime and its solution. All and all, you're right; it's quite memorable.

  7. Enjoyed your spotlight feature. Another great example and a another book to add to my 'must find' list. Thanks. Looking forward to the next one.

    Thoughts in Progress

  8. Mason - Thank you :-). This really is, I think, a solid example of Morse at his, well, Morse-est. And the characters really are compelling. I think you'll enjoy it.

  9. This book definitely goes on my TBR list. I love books where people are interconnected almost weblike, and books with strong characters well etched, and books that tell me something about the social structure of the place and time they are set in. Throw in a good suspense and what's not to like?
    Thank you, Margot.

  10. Rayna - Oh, I'm so glad that you find this one interesting :-). You are right on all counts: there are web-like interconnections, drama and suspense, class and other social issues and of course, a good mystery. Oh, and there's Morse, too. As you say, what's not to like? I hope that you'll enjoy it.

  11. One of my very favorite Morse's. I so miss John Thaw in the part. Lewis is good TV but Morse was...Morse.

  12. Patti - Oh, you are absolutely right! This novel really is, I think, an example of Morse at his, well, Morse-est. And yes, John Thaw was Morse, wasn't he?

  13. You do such a good job of profiling authors and their books. Glad I have yo on my blog roll. As always, thanks for the review.

    Stephen Tremp

  14. Stephen - You're very kind :-). And I'm ashamed to say that I hadn't really realized that you weren't on my blog roll before. But I've remedied that embarrassing oversight. Thanks for the kind words :-).

  15. I admit I liked the television series more than the books with Morse. I think it's because Dexter rarely gave all the needed information to the reader and Morse was just able to come up with the solution while I was left saying "How on earth did he know that?"

    I'm especially glad you decided to put the spotlight on Morse since I was watching the "Inspector Lewis" new episode on Sunday and the last interchange of the show was Lewis and his Sergeant talking about their taste in classical music. Lewis remarked "I'm more of a Wagner man, myself" which made me smile and say "Oh...Morse...." It was lovely.

  16. Elspeth - Oh, what a subtle but nice tribute to Morse that comment was :-). A nice "inside joke," too, in a way. Thanks for sharing it.

    You're not the first person I know of who's said that Dexter didn't give the reader as much information in the Morse books as viewers got in the series. It's an interesting comparison, actually, since both the books and the show have deeply-dedicated followers. It highlights, too, that delicate balance between giving the reader enough information to "play fair" without giving the whole show away, especially for experienced crime fiction fans who know, so to speak, what to look for.

  17. Months after you profiled it, I finally got down to reading the book, and it was every bit as good as you said it would be. I particularly liked the evolution of the character of Ellie Smith- I am sure nothing further happens, but I would have loved it if something more had developed between them.

    You need to jump a bit to connect the dots, but a really good read.

  18. I just finished Colin Dexter's book The Daughters of Cain, and let me say...Brilliant Stuff. Really and truly gripping. The more you read it the more you want the story to just go on and on. I am really move by the relationship between Morse and Ellie Smith. They're so different, yet so much alike. This is a must-read book. Dig it and the series too.

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  20. Having just reread this book for maybe the fifth time, I thought it time to comment. Whilst it is a good story, I find Dexter's tone - especially in the earlier parts of the book - very annoying. The writing can be very patronising and could easily have lost some of the more eccentric parts without diminishing the story. Note how in almost every Morse book, he spends some time in hospital.