Book name: The Secret of Annexe Three
Author: Colin Dexter
Format: ebook, print, audiobook
Genre: Murder mystery
Publication Date: 1986
I have something of a soft spot for Colin Dexter's Inspector Morse series since it is set in the city where I studied for my degree.
On the way through the streets to our end-of-first-year exams dressed in formal caps and gowns, my friends and I spotted John Thaw, who played Inspector Morse in the TV adaptation, breakfasting in the Randolph Hotel.
He saw us, too, and both sides laughed as we were struck by the fleeting irony of two stereotyped images of Oxford glimpsing each other.
The Secret of Annexe Three is set at a special time of year often associated with murder mysteries. It's New Year, and the Haworth Hotel in north Oxford is hosting a weekend of events, the most exciting of which is a fancy-dress banquet on New Year's Eve.
The hotel is full, and proprietor John Binyon and his manager Sarah Jonstone are working flat out to make sure that everything is perfect for their guests. Heavy snowfall makes for an evocative wintry scene. The next day, however, some guests enjoying a snowball fight notice an open window, with snow billowing into one of the hotel's annexe bedrooms.
The body of a murdered man is discovered inside. All the other guests from the annexe slip away without being questioned, and Morse and Lewis are left to track them down.
The detectives soon discover the identities of all the five guests who fled the annexe, and they also establish the identity of the victim. Each absconder has their own compelling reason to want to escape without being questioned, even when they are innocent of the murder.
A high-class call girl, a cheating husband and a pair of low-level confidence tricksters all cross paths with Morse. As Colin Dexter points out, many people who visit hotels do so under false identities because they have plenty to hide.
I liked The Secret of Annexe Three because although it was set in Oxford, it didn't revolve around the university. The only slight link was the fact that one of the suspects happens to be employed by the university exam board, and that isn't key the plot at all. Instead, the novel centred upon tourism.
As well as being home to a big university, Oxford is an international destination for tourism and visitors throng the streets in the summer. Parts of the city are packed with hotels and B&Bs. Out of season these hotels entice guests with special events such as New Year and Christmas celebrations.
As always with the Inspector Morse series, the use of real Oxford geography was accurate and vivid. The city is beautiful and unique, and it is such a wonderful setting for drama.
I love the city where I did my degree, and the focus on the Woodstock and Banbury Roads kept the story close to Somerville College, where I was a student.
Colin Dexter provides us with quite a cast of characters, and on a first read it was hard to place everyone and keep track. There were far more witnesses than in a typical murder mystery. However, the narrowing down of suspects occurred very effectively courtesy of the limited number of guests in the annexe where the murder takes place.
Once the victim's identity is established, Inspector Morse's interest becomes tightly focused and the crime takes on a more domestic element. Despite the gathering of many strangers, the motivation for the crime occurs at family level. I liked the ironic tone, and the continual twists and turns of suspects kept the action fresh and unpredictable right up to the end.
A brilliant story that juxtaposed the personal with the anonymity of the hotel setting.
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