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The Jewel That Was Ours

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Maybe, back in 1988 or in a repeat broadcast, you saw The Wolvercote Tongue — a two-episode Inspector Morse crime puzzle on PBS’ Mystery! series. Maybe you remember it as one of the lesser Morse dramas: good-if-not-great suspense about murder and jewel theft bedeviling an American tour group in Oxford. Superb atmosphere. Choice acting. So-so plot. And maybe, if I tell you that Colin Dexter’s latest Morse novel is ”based in part” on his original storyline for The Wolvercote Tongue, you’ll think — especially if you still recall whodunit — that you can afford to skip The Jewel That Was Ours.

Well, think again. Dexter hasn’t merely expanded and refined the television screenplay that was developed from his ”original storyline.” Instead, in an audacious move that just might be unprecedented, he has turned the TV version inside out, giving it an entirely different — and far superior — windup.

Who stole the Wolvercote Tongue from rich tourist Laura Stratton of Pasadena, Calif., who was about to donate the 8th-century ruby-and-gold artifact to Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum? Did Mrs. Stratton, found dead of a massive coronary in her hotel room, surprise the thief mid-crime? And what’s the connection to the murder — just a day later — of Dr. Theodore Kemp, the preening academic (and compulsive philanderer) who hoped to turn the arrival of the tongue into a self-promoting media event? On Mystery! the answers to these questions were shrewdly deduced, reasonably satisfying, but unremarkable. In The Jewel That Was Ours Morse makes these same deductions only to find himself utterly, shamefully wrong — a delicious moment — before groping his way to the new, improved solution: an emotion-loaded switcheroo worthy of Agatha Christie.

In less startling ways, too, the story has been slyly revamped to offer more old-fashioned pleasure to connoisseurs of the traditional English mystery. Dexter tosses in extra suspects, fresh red herrings, and additional alibi tangles — complete with a brainteaser involving the train schedule between Oxford and London. At the same time his tart narration, though occasionally too droll for its own good, keeps the tone firmly contemporary. And happily, the American tourists aren’t the irritating caricatures they were in the Mystery! version.

Only the inspector himself seems to have lost, rather than gained, in the transition from screen to page. Dexter does allow gloomy, middle-aged bachelor Morse, who’s forever frustrated on television, to consummate a rather pathetic affair with Dr. Kemp’s cast-off mistress, the ”semi-permanently sozzled” Sheila Williams. Even so, the book’s inspector pales somewhat beside actor John Thaw’s intense, sad-eyed impersonation. For maximum Morse power, then, stick with the TV series, which returned to PBS last month, or try The Wench Is Dead (1990). But for all other purposes, consider this one more Jewel in Dexter’s crown: elegant, complex, yet with enough dark undercurrents to qualify as serious entertainment of the highest order. A-