The second Chief Inspector Morse novel does little to make him a more attractive character than his first outing in Last Bus to Woodstock. Published in 1976, Last Seen Wearing revolves around the disappearance of schoolgirl Valerie Taylor. When the previous investigating officer, Chief Inspector Ainley, dies unexpectedly, the two year-old case is handed on to Morse, who begins to suspect that Valerie went missing after being impregnated. But by whom, and where did she go?
As is often the case with the early Morse novels, there are some strange disconnects between the 1970s and today. The overall feeling of the book is almost like a noir novel, albeit a well-mannered one, as though the reader is watching events through a grime-caked window. As Morse and Lewis attempt to make sense of the girl’s disappearance, their suspicion that they are not being told the truth by more than one person only grows. But who is lying? The headmaster, the French master, Valerie’s own parents? In the end, it is only by being persistently wrong that Morse ends up coming to the right answer.
I’ve tried to imagine what it was like reading Dexter’s early books in the 70s. It seems odd to me. I can only think that they proved to be a sort of “ripped from the headlines” story, and that the Morse character would find his feet in later books. Certainly, later books are better than the early ones, but reading Morse from the beginning, the character development (slow thought it might be) is the ultimate pay-off.
In the end, Last Seen Wearing does have some echoes of the charm he was to develop later, thanks in large part to the ITV series with the late (and much missed) John Thaw. As with the other adaptations, you may come to this book and wonder if you’re reading the same story. Though names are generally the same, the characters are often completely changed (sometimes they’ve even changed gender!), as are some locales. I still vividly recall wondering what I’d missed when I first read these in the late 80s, having seen the early episodes on television, and that feeling persists all these years later. Worth reading for the completist. Three stars.
Originally reviewed 4 June 2015.
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