In hypothetical sentences introduced by if and referring to past time, where conditions are deemed to be unfulfilled, the verb will regularly be found in the pluperfect subjunctive, in both protasis and apodosis.
-- Donet, Principles of Elementary Latin Syntax
It is perhaps unusual to begin a tale of murder with a reminder to the reader of the rules governing conditional sentences in a language that is incontrovertibly dead. In the present case, however, such a course appears not wholly inappropriate.
If (if) Chief Inspector Morse had been on hand to observe the receptionist's dress -- an irregularly triangled affair in blues, grays, and reds -- he might have been reminded of the uniform issued to a British Airways stewardess. More probably, though, he might not, since he had never flown on British Airways. His only flight during the previous decade had occasioned so many fears concerning his personal survival that he had determined to restrict all future travel to those statistically far more precarious means of conveyance -- the car, the coach, the train, and the steamer.
Yet almost certainly the Chief Inspector would have noted, with approval, the receptionist herself, for in Yorkshire she would have been reckoned a bonny lass: a vivacious, dark-eyed woman, long-legged and well-figured; a woman-judging from her ringless, well-manicured fingers -- not overtly advertising any marital commitment, and not averse, perhaps, to the occasional overture from the occasional man.
Pinned at the top left of her colorful dress was a name tag: Dawn Charles.
Unlike several of her friends (certainly unlike Morse) she was quite content with her Christian name. Sometimes shed felt slightly dubious about it; but no longer. Out with some friends in the Bird and Baby the previous month, shed been introduced to a rather dashing, rather dishy undergraduate from Pembroke College. And when, a little later, she'd found herself doodling inconsequentially on a Burton beer mat, the young man, on observing her sinistrality, had initiated a wholly memorable conversation.
Dawn? That is your name?
Do you know that line from Omar Khayyam? "Dreaming when Dawn's left hand was in the sky ..." Lovely, isn't it?
Yes, it was. Lovely.
She'd peeled the top off the beer mat and made him write it down for her.
Then, very quietly, he'd asked her if he could see her again. At the start of the new term, perhaps? She'd known it was silly, for there must have been at least twenty years difference in their ages. If only ... if only he'd been ten, a dozen years older ...
But people did do silly things, and hoped their silly hopes. And that very day, January 15, was the first full day of the new Hilary Term in the University of Oxford. Her Monday-Friday job, 6-10pm, at the clinic on Banbury Road (just north of St. Giles) was really quite enjoyable. Over three years of it now, and she was becoming a fixture there. Most of the consultants greeted her with a genuine smile; several of them, these days, with her Christian name.
She'd once stayed at a four-star hotel which offered a glass of sherry to incoming guests; and although the private Harvey Clinic was unwilling (perhaps on medical grounds?) to provide such laudable hospitality, Dawn ever kept two jugs of genuine coffee piping hot for her clients, most of them soberly suited and well-heeled gentlemen. A number of whom, as she well knew, were most seriously ill.
Yes, there had been several occasions when she had heard a few brief passages of conversation between consultant and client which she shouldn't have heard; or which, having heard, she should have forgotten; and which she should never have been willing to report to anyone. Not even to the police.
Quite certainly not to the Press ...
As it happened, January 15 was to prove a day unusually easy for her to recall, since it marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of the clinic's opening in 1971. By prior negotiation and arrangement, the clinic was visited that evening, between 7pm and 8:30pm, by Radio Oxford, by the local press, and by Mr. Wesley Smith and his crew from the Central TV studios out at Abingdon. And particularly memorable for Dawn had been those precious moments when the camera had focused upon her: first, when (as instructed) she had poured a cup of genuine coffee for a wholly bogus client; second, when the cameraman had moved behind her left shoulder as she ran a felt-tipped pen through a name on the appointments list in front of her -- but only, of course, after a full assurance that no viewer would be able to read the name itself when the feature was shown the following evening.
Yet Dawn Charles was always to remember the name: Mr. J. C. Storrs.
It had been a fairly new name to her -- another of those patients, as Dawn suspected correctly, whose influence and affluence afforded the necessary leverage and money to jump the queues awaiting their calls to the hospitals up in Headington.
There was something else she would always remember, too ...
By one of those minor coincidences (so commonplace in Morse's life) it had been just as most of the personnel from the media were preparing to leave, at almost exactly 8:30pm, that Mr. Robert Turnbull, the Senior Cancer Consultant, had passed her desk, nodded a greeting, and walked slowly to the exit, his right hand resting on the shoulder of Mr. J. C. Storrs. The two men were talking quietly together for some while -- Dawn was certain of that. But certain of little else. The look on the consultants face, as far as she could recall, had been neither that of a judge who has just condemned a man to death, nor that of one just granting a prisoner his freedom.
No obvious grimness.
No obvious joy.
And indeed there was adequate cause for such uncertainty on Dawn's part, since the scene had been partially masked from her by the continued presence of several persons: a ponytailed reporter scribbling a furious shorthand as he interviewed a nurse; the TV crew packing away its camera and tripods; the Lord Mayor speaking some congratulatory words into a Radio Oxford microphone -- all of them standing between her and the top of the three blue-carpeted stairs which led down to the double-doored exit, outside which were affixed the vertical banks of well-polished brass plates, ten on each side, the fourth from the top on the left reading:
If only Dawn Charles could have recalled a little more.
If -- that little conjunction introducing those unfulfilled conditions in past time which, as Donet reminds us, demand the pluperfect subjunctive in both clauses -- a syntactical rule which Morse himself had mastered early on in an education which had been far more fortunate than that enjoyed by the receptionist at the Harvey Clinic.
Indeed, over the next two weeks, most people in Oxford were destined to be considerably more fortunate than Dawn Charles: She received no communication from the poetry lover of Pembroke; her mother was admitted to a psychiatric ward out at Littlemore; she was twice reminded by her bank manager of the increasing problems arising from the large margin of negative equity on her small flat; and finally, on Monday morning, January 29, she was to hear on Fox FM Radio that her favorite consultant, Mr. Robert H. Turnbull, MB, ChB, FRCS, had been fatally injured in a car accident on Cumnor Hill.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Death Is Now My Neighbor by Colin Dexter. . Excerpted by permission of Ivy Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.