British Detective: Feisty Rebel With a Cause

Death is now my neighbor

By Colin Dexter

Crown Publishers

347 pp., $24

By any calculation, Sergeant Lewis should be good and fed up. Here it is, midpoint in "Death Is Now My Neighbor," Colin Dexter's elegant new novel, and Lewis is again the long-suffering assistant to the abusive, ungrateful Inspector Morse. Lewis is ordered to pursue leads for which he'll receive no credit; told he's ungrammatical almost every time he opens his mouth; and asked to pay for drinks he never consumes.

And yet, when Morse returns to work after an illness, "suddenly Lewis felt very happy that he was back in harness with this arrogant, ungracious, vulnerable, lovable man with whom he had worked so closely for so many years."

We know just how Lewis feels. Thousands of fans have fallen hard for Oxford, England's Chief Inspector Morse over the past dozen novels, in great part because Dexter understands so well what many readers want in the role of inspector.

By most standards, an inspector should be a rebel, a bit of an outsider - not always socially, of course (remember Ngaio Marsh's aristocratic Roderick Alleyn), but mentally - he's not going to let any stodgy, desk-bound superior dictate the course of an investigation. In "Death Is Now My Neighbor," for example, Morse unofficially hires a thief to get papers he could never legally obtain.

Any inspector hoping to endear himself must certainly possess a fair share of quirks and distinctive habits. Agatha Christie gave all her detectives this gift, but was especially generous to Hercule Poirot. Martin Beck, the Swedish policeman in the wonderful series by authors Jaj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, had his fair share too. But Morse, with his love of a pint, crossword puzzles, perfect grammar and opera, can stand among the best.

While inspector-as-loner certainly isn't unusual (P.D. James's brooding Dalgliesh always broods alone), an inspector with the right sidekick is a fortunate inspector indeed.

What would Holmes do without Watson as a balance? Reginold Hill's wonderfully awful Dalziel needs his civil partner Pascoe to really shine. And author Elizabeth George knows that the best way to showcase aristocratic Inspector Lynley is with his working-class Sergeant Barbara Havers.

Morse couldn't be Morse without his lesser-educated Sergeant Lewis to act as target, scapegoat, sounding-board and, as is made touchingly clear in this new book, friend.

It will be a shame if, as Dexter has mentioned in an interview, he's considering ending the Morse series. "Death Is Now My Neighbor" is certainly his best work yet, full of insight into human nature, and rich with real (but always understated) emotion.

As Morse and Lewis investigate the seemingly random murder of a woman, their search leads to Oxford's Lonsdale College. There, a nasty battle is being fought - mostly by the contestants' wives - over who will be the next master of the college. (Incidentally, Dexter tips his hat to C.P. Snow's novel "The Masters." Snow was an excellent mystery writer: check out "Death Under Sail.")

The plot, as in all Dexter novels, is clever but not dazzling. What is dazzling, and delightful and habit-forming, is Dexter's lovely prose, his obvious intelligence (and willingness to show it off) and his creation of one of the best detective duos in all of mystery fiction.

Those fans who also watch the Inspector Morse television series on PBS's "Mystery!" may find, as this reader did, that by now it's impossible to separate the fictional image of Morse and Lewis from the actors who portray them. But because of the superb performances by John Thaw and Kevin Whately (Morse and Lewis, respectively), the show actually enriches the novels. Many female readers also find merely looking at Thaw an enriching experience.

Oh - and one more thing. In a touching and perfectly handled way, Inspector Morse's first name is finally revealed in this novel. Morse gives it, as a gift of friendship, to you-can-guess-who. But all readers will savor the gift of this novel.

* Michele Ross, an Atlanta-based writer, regularly reviews mystery books for the Monitor.

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