I loved Colin Dexter’s novels when they were first published but until now had only re-read The Wench Is Dead, his superb historical mystery. The Secret Of Annexe 3 is Dexter’s seventh novel, published in 1986. This was the story I recalled least, as it was the only title not adapted for the ITV drama. The murder takes place around a fancy dress night at an Oxford hotel, on a snowy New Year’s Eve.
It surprised me from the opening pages that Colin Dexter did a lot of foreshadowing and using an author’s ‘voiceover.’ Those men and women we are to meet in the following pages.
At that moment a train of events was set in motion which would result in murder – a murder planned with slow subtlety and executed with swift ferocity.
I often re-read Victorian novels where foreshadowing and chatty asides from the author were popular devices. I don’t mind at all when Trollope suddenly addresses his readers for several paragraphs or Wilkie Collins starts dropping direct hints about dark deeds ahead. I’m happy to accept it was the style of the age and find it endearing but in a late twentieth century novel, it seems distracting.
A minor point though, for I’d forgotten how absorbing it is to visit Chief Inspector Morse’s Oxford with its intelligent prose and lovely sense of place. The characters are very human with their failings and I liked the way secondary figures are given lots of back-story.
It’s interesting to see how society has moved on from a story written thirty years ago. Some guests at the fancy dress contest and dinner-dance, at the heart of the case, would be on very dodgy ground today. The hotel’s theme is ‘The Mystery of the East’ which is interpreted in a variety of ways.
It must have taken the man some considerable time to effect such a convincing transformation into a coffee-coloured, dreadlocked Rastafarian; and perhaps he hadn’t quite finished yet, for even as he walked across to the dining-room he was still dabbing his brown-stained hands with a white handkerchief that was now more chocolate than vanilla.
Another guest is dressed in the black garb of a female adherent of the Ayatollah, in a voice muffled by the double veil of her yashmak.
The Secret Of Annexe 3 has an intriguing plot with the hallmarks of a Golden Age puzzle. The Haworth Hotel has acquired the building next door which is part-way through its conversion to an annexe. Four rooms are completed and booked for the New Year festivities. When one of the guests is murdered, the annexe is the setting for a classic locked room mystery with a closed circle of suspects. Heavy snow has fallen and the three day hotel package makes a modern substitute for the winter country house-party, beloved of vintage crime fiction.
As this is clever, devious Colin Dexter, complications pile upon twists for Chief Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis. The corpse cannot be identified, the time of death can’t be established, the other guests have fled before the police arrived and hardly a single guest at the Haworth had registered under a genuine name…
By this point in the series, Morse and Lewis are comfortably established in their respective rôles of the brilliantly intuitive, erratic thinker and cheerful, hard-working side-kick. We’ve been rewatching the boxset and this time I’ve been struck by how offensively John Thaw’s Morse often speaks to Lewis in the earlier episodes. The underlying affection and Morse’s dependence on Lewis takes a long time to develop. In The Secret of Annexe 3, the relationship between the two men is much warmer with less conflict than on screen. Lewis gets more moments of quiet humour, showing how well he has the measure of Morse.
This is the last title published before the legendary television drama began early in 1987. It’s well known that the production team decided to change Sergeant Lewis from the novels, giving a contrast in age of the two leads. Colin Dexter dropped some description of Lewis in the later novels to fit Kevin Whateley’s portrayal. In the pre-television novels, Lewis is a heavily-built Welshman and a grandfather, only slightly younger than Morse. Other small changes were made such as Morse’s car becoming the classic Jaguar shown on screen.
Morse isn’t melancholy or sad in this outing, only tetchy as he’s given up smoking again. He’s on fine form, trading insults with his old friend Max the police surgeon, fancying the hotel receptionist with her enormous 80s specs, disappearing in pubs, betting shops and nearly spending the night with a call-girl. He also enjoys an invitation to Sunday lunch and an afternoon spent with the Lewis family, unlikely for the television Morse.
In the main, Morse is happy as he has a wonderfully baffling case. The twists and red herrings are like a conjuror performing a succession of card tricks. The suspects are very thoroughly shuffled.
When all is revealed, a pivotal part of the plot doesn’t bear too close an examination – to say the least. That was surprising and shows how even the great crime novelists can occasionally get carried away with the intricacies of their plot. Even so, I found The Secret Of Annexe 3 a very enjoyable read.