Last Bus to Woodstock is the first of Dexter’s thirteen Morse mysteries. It introduces Thames Valley’s Chief Inspector Morse and his long-suffering Sergeant, Lewis (he is only christened years later). If readers are approaching the novel having seen the 1980s-90s ITV production, they will be in for a surprise: the early novels bear only a cursory resemblance to the later television productions. Careful readers will find much to enjoy here, but Last Bus to Woodstock is clearly a first novel, rather than a third or a fifth or tenth.
The plot is fairly straightforward, and much more thoroughly thought-out than many of the subsequent Morse novels. Set in and around Oxford, it begins with two women hitching a lift from Oxford to Woodstock, northwest of the ancient university town. One is picked up by a red car, and, a short time later, is found dead in the car park of a pub. Who murdered Sylvia? It is up to the grumpy figure of Chief Inspector Morse to find out, and to untangle the web of relationships around the dead woman.
Certainly, there are many dated elements to the book. Remember 1975? I do, but only just. But here is where knowledge of the television production won’t really help you, as it changed some fundamentals of the books (arguably for the better), and was first made a full decade later (though it could be said that the 1980s themselves are now another country). Culture has moved on, attitudes have – in some cases – matured and improved, the world has moved on, the Royal Mail, the NHS, and even policing have changed. Some readers may not be able to see beyond this, but knowing what is to come in the series, that will very much be their loss. That being said, this is a novel from the mid-1970s. Don’t expect the world to look like forty years later, but rather be pleased that it has moved on at all, and you will still find Morse enigmatic, irritating, and sometimes even off-putting. At the core of the story, thought, remains the mercurial relationship between Morse and Lewis, with Morse’s tendency to leap to the wrong conclusions and simultaneously make questionable decisions with regards to female suspects… that’s all here. Personally, I suspect that the character’s flawed “human, all too human” weaknesses, especially as portrayed by John Thaw, are much of what is attractive about Dexter’s novels.
Last Bus to Woodstock is more meticulously plotted than many of the later Morse novels, with a number of red herrings evident to the players, but not to an attentive reader. It varies significantly from the eventual television adaptation, so again, readers who know the ITV series will be kept guessing – especially by the character who wasn’t even shown on telly, but proves central to the novel. There are many other minor details, including the fact that Morse drives a Lancia, rather than the eventual televisual Jag (which would even make the cover of several early 90s novels), which will keep the interested reader wondering at what in blazes is going on.
It’s not a perfect book, but well worth a read for fans of the series. Three and a half stars.
Originally reviewed 12 March 2015.
Find your copy of Last Bus to Woodstock at AbeBooks.com (link goes directly to search results).