The Swedish Maiden

The Way Through the Woods by Colin Dexter (1992): Multiple-mystery-novel-award-winning mystery novel (whew) featuring Inspector Morse and the faithful Sergeant Lewis as they investigate a year-old murder case that lacks a body, a suspect, and quite possibly a murder.

A mysterious and possibly clue-filled poem from an anonymous source reboots the investigation when the poem appears in the newspaper, the allusive and elusive poem almost certainly related to the whereabouts of the ‘Swedish Maiden’, the young Swedish woman who disappeared in the Oxford area the previous summer. Soon, Morse will cut short his vacation in Lyme Regis (where parts of Jane Austen’s Persuasion took place, everyone keeps telling everyone else) because when it comes to cases with weird twists, the opera-loving Morse is the Oxford PD’s go-to guy.

The novel is almost fiendishly convoluted, and those convolutions lead Morse and Lewis into an even more labyrinthine-than-usual path through the assorted strata of Oxford society. Morse remains lonely and drunk for much of the novel, though also sometimes bafflingly attractive to women. It must be all the alcohol. And the opera. And the first name, initial ‘E’, that he never gives out.

The Way Through the Woods also explores the attitudes of Morse’s colleagues towards him, along with the almost high-schooley politics within a police department. Of course, Morse in books and on TV, and Lewis’s own spin-off series, all examine the social and political entanglements that connect everything in Oxford — town and gown, high and low. As above, so below. Highly recommended.

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