In praise of … INSPECTOR MORSE

There are two distinct flavours of Inspector Morse – first there are the Colin Dexter series of thirteen novels (and a handful of short stories) published between 1975 and 1999; then there are the 33 feature-length episodes of the TV series starring John Thaw and Kevin Whately, which is made up of adaptations of the novels, new TV stories by Dexter and original scripts – it was first screened on British TV from 1987 to 2000. The two are surprisingly distinct entities though clearly one must consider their relationship quite carefully, especially as the later books have also been influenced by the TV version. Thus what follows is intended as a celebration of the dual if inextricably bound iterations that create Inspector Morse.

The books (1975-1999)

Last Bus to Woodstock, Colin Dexter’s first novel, was published in 1975 and it introduced the surly and saturnine Oxford police inspector E. Morse and Lewis, his sergeant – in the books the two characters are roughly the same age and have much more in common than they do in the TV series. Dexter’s stories are often incredibly complicated as Lewis and Morse endlessly debate all kinds of convoluted possible solutions to the case as the stories progress – this is actually the real fun of most of the novels as we explore the jigsaw puzzle plots and try to solve them the same way we would when faced with an acrostic, albeit through often highly imaginative leaps.

Here is a complete list of the books:

  1. Last Bus to Woodstock (1975)
  2. Last Seen Wearing (1976)
  3. The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn (1977)
  4. Service of All the Dead (1979)
  5. The Dead of Jericho (1981)
  6. The Riddle of the Third Mile (1983)
  7. The Secret of Annexe 3 (1986)
  8. The Wench is Dead (1989)
  9. The Jewel That Was Ours (1991)
  10. The Way Through the Woods (1992)
  11. Morse’s Greatest Mystery and Other Stories (1993 / 94)
  12. The Daughters of Cain (1994)
  13. Death is Now My Neighbour (1996)
  14. The Remorseful Day (1999)

Morse in the books is a more likely, less romanticised figure than he would be as played by John Thaw on television. Much rougher rounder the edges, he is a really heavy drinker and has a slightly less palatable interest in pornography and erotica, as explored in Last Seen Wearing when he abandons Lewis on a pretext to spend time in a Soho strip club. This was understandably toned down for the more upmarket TV version, but there is something distinctly earthy about Dexter’s books, a fascination with sex and the power it exerts, that is definitely part of their DNA. This isn’t the only thing that got airbrushed out for TV and to some extent the show did start to feedback into the books – Morse lost his Lancia and started driving the Jag driven in the show by Thaw for instance. But it is also possible to see the influence of the show as beneficial as in some ways Dexter’s books, with their distinctive brand of crossword puzzle logic, seemed to crest and peak as the television series was becoming popular. The Secret of Annexe 3 (1986) was already a bit of a step down, revolving as it does on its slightly absurd disguise / triple bluff and was deemed not strong enough to adapt for TV (the racial element that is crucial to the plot may not have helped in this regard either). Subsequently Dexter could be seen drawing on different sources for his work or reworking favourite themes to good effect.  Published when the TV version was in its third year, The Wench is Dead was a total departure, an homage to Josephine Tey’s classic The Daughter of Time with Morse in hospital having to literally act as an armchair detective to solve a Victorian mystery; The Jewel That Was Ours would have been familiar to fans of the TV shows as it was an adaptation of an original story he wrote for the second series entitled ‘The Wolvercote Tongue’ which was scripted by Julian Mitchell but which considerably reworks the material. The otherwise excellent The Way through the Woods again may have seemed a bit familiar as it used the same basic premise of Last Seen Wearing but in many ways improves upon it.

To pick my favourites of the books I found myself focusing less on the wonderfully contrived plots and more on the banter and situations: these three offer a variety of pleasures for the outrageous stories and great dialogue. Not in chronological order …

The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn
This early novel has a particularly clever gambit based on hearing loss (with which Dexter himself was afflicted) and is probably my favourite overall.

Last Seen Wearing
Great fun as it features almost a ‘reductio ad absurdum’ of the Morse and Lewis dynamic as they virtually compete in coming up with one complex explanation after another as new facts are revealed and yet are not quite able to nail the elusive murderer. Changed to remarkable effect on TV, even to the extent of altering the identity of the murderer; both versions are excellent in their own way.

The Remorseful Day
Dexter’s final Morse novel is not his best but as one of the very few examples of an author deciding to bump off his primary character it is well deserving of praise – and it certainly left me with a lump in my throat.

The TV series (1987-2000)

John Thaw and Kevin Whately

The mystique that quickly built up around this TV series in the UK and then overseas remains I think unparalleled in the genre – the closest one I can think of is Columbo, with which it does have several superficial similarities: in both cases the eponymous protagonist is only known by his surname and he drives a distinctive car; the episodes are all feature-length stand alone films and were never meant to be watched as an ongoing TV series as is the usual norm as there is virtually no link between one episode to the next (with a few notable exceptions). In addition the films, slowly paced as befits the longer format, emphasise complex plots and performances and are basically cerebral games with no ‘action’ to speak of. But Inspector Morse really does stand on its own. While the beautiful locations and use of classical music and allusions to literature and the arts were clearly bait for the middle class heritage crowd of the 1980s, this is a show that really stands up as a series of individual films that can discuss Art, Class, Politics, Police Corruption or even Religion with a seriousness that is completely unexpected in a primetime cop drama. It’s a classic example of sugaring the pill and when the scripts are by such distinctive writers as Julian Mitchell, Charles Wood or Anthony Minghella there is much to reward repeat viewings.

Favourite TV episodes:

To my mind there are no really poor episodes of this show, though ‘Day of the Devil’, a deliberately atypical story about a kidnapper and a group of Satanists, comes perilously close to being on par with an episode of the infinitely inferior Midsommer Murders. The noted playwright and novelist Julian Mitchell was the principal writer of the show, responsible for 10 out of the 33 episodes; Anthony Minghella wrote 3, Alma Cullen (author of the recent authorised Morse stage play ‘House of Ghosts) wrote 4; late arrival Daniel Boyle (not to be confused with Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle who also directed 2 outstanding episodes) wrote 5.

My favourites are the ones with the strongest plots but also the most atmospheric since the series was beautifully shot – some of the sequences are photographed with extraordinary care for a TV production, especially for the episode ‘Who Killed Harry Field’ (directed with enormous panache by Colin Gregg), a move seemingly dictated by the fact that the plot focuses on a painter. In the third series, produced by Chris Burt, who now makes the enjoyable but slightly more pedestrian Lewis spin-off, attempts were made to make the show more like traditional TV, with an ongoing potential love interest for Morse with the beautiful young medical examiner and a flatter, less showy photographic style; but thankfully this was reversed for the fourth season, which produced some of the finest and most sumptuously photographed of stories – perhaps none more so that ‘Masonic Mysteries’, based on Mozart’s The Magic Flute and dealing with the Masons and a complex revenge that sees Morse framed for murder. It’s a hackneyed plot but here it is given magnificent, visually ravishing treatment, with wonderful performances, as always, from its central duo and some cracking dialogue to make this amongst the cream, of the cream, as it were. So, four of the best …

The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn (1987)
Julian Mitchell’s fine adaptation of Colin Dexter’s excellent novel, with Barbara Flynn outstanding as the teacher with an attraction for Morse that is destined never to be (of course).

Masonic Mysteries (1990)
Another Julian Mitchell script, dynamically shot by Danny Boyle and with Ian McDiermid in a typically fine performance as the Machiavellian villain – wonderful stuff.

Promised Land (1991)
Set in Australia rather than Oxford, this is a modern-day western written by Julian Mitchell and directed by John Madden, which is also a meditation on religious belief. Unlikely as it may seem, truly amongst the show’s very finest two  hours.

Dead on Time (1992)
This is where we found out why Morse left University and ended up as a copper instead of an academic in one of the few stories that really peals back the layers in his past, one of the five written by Daniel Boyle and directed once again by John Madden, later to make Shakespeare in Love.

With its memorable theme tune by Barrington Pheloung, intricate plots, beautiful Oxford scenery exquisitely photographed, and a truly great team in John Thaw and Kevin Whately, this remain a classic TV show, quite the best of its kind.

***** (5 fedora tips out of 5)

This entry was posted in 'Best of' lists, 'In praise of ...', Colin Dexter, Columbo, Inspector Morse, Oxford. Bookmark the permalink.

24 Responses to In praise of … INSPECTOR MORSE

  1. Patrick says:

    What a coincidence… here I was preparing to pick up a copy of THE WENCH IS DEAD as my next book! Damn! The ghost of Harry Stephen Keeler has struck again!!!

  2. Hi Patrick – great criminal minds think alike? Either way, the Dexter is really worth reading, irrespective of whether you know the Josephine Tey or not as it only shares the basic conceit of the detective being laid up in bed and nothing else really as Morse unravels a fictional case. Hope you like it.

  3. I have only read one or two of the novels and I was never completely bowled over by them…I suspect it’s mostly to do with timing as I came across them first when I was 19 or 20 (when half had already been published) and I’m afraid they just felt like more very ‘blokey’ stories to me. At that age I was just starting to look for writing by women and books which had central female characters and the Morse books didn’t measure up on either front. Even though they were written by a woman Ruth Rendell’s Inspector Wexford novels fell into the same “what…more old white blokes banging on?” category that 20 year-old me just didn’t care for. That phase lasted about 4 or 5 years and even though I have tried I haven’t managed to go back and really get into any of the series I dismissed, though I now read plenty of books written by men and/or where all the main characters are men.

    I had actually resisted watching the Morse tv shows too but spied the box set of DVDs for a ridiculously cheap price a few months ago and have watched about 10 of the films so far and found them surprisingly (to me) watchable and intellecutally engaging. I’ll look forward now to the one set in Australia…lots of shows have special episodes set here and they are usually truly awful in the way they focus on stupid misconceptions about the country. I would expect better based on what I’ve seen so far of the Morse films.

    • Hi there, thanks very much for the comments. I think i know what you mean about these books and Rndell’s Wexford series even though in some respects at least the Morse books aren’t obviously blokeish, at least in that as a protagonist he doesn’t suffer from too many of the stereotypes that the phrase implies – and women are usually depicted as being pretty strong and independent. On the other hand, the point of view is that is a middle aged man, inescapably so. The TV series at its best is probably a lot more sophisticated than the books – I’ll be very curious to know what you make of PROMISED LAND – it deals specifically with preconceptions that Brits and Aussies have about each other and in that sense always struck me as being fairly even handed – my sister-in-law is from Queensland and really rates it too! .

      All the best,

  4. Fascinating – our choice of favourite books is completely different, for once.
    My out and out favourite is The Way Through The Woods, due to the very different opening half of the story, followed by The Riddle of the Third Mile, due to the revelation that is left to the last page. And I don’t rate The Remorseful Day at all – plotwise, it’s lacking a lot. Not a big fan of PROMISED LAND on TV either, or the Italian one, either, again, as I don’t think they’re much of a mystery at all.

    To be honest (and keep it to yourself) I actually prefer the Lewis TV show to the later Morse series – it may never reach the highs of Morse, but it also never gets anywhere near the lows.

    • Hello mate, I do agree that WAY THROUGH THE WOODS is an excellent novel – there is something about LAST SEEN WEARING than somehow I prefer, not least because it came first – and yes, REMOREFUL DAY is very far from Dexter’s best in terms of plotting, but it’s a special book though so I didn’t want to leave it out. RIDDLE OF THIRD MILE the book is certainly very different from the TV version!

  5. TomCat says:

    I watched the entire series when I was just getting into detectives, and also read a handful of the novels. They have faded considerably from my memory, but last year I bought a stack of them at a book fest for next to nothing. So consider me prepared in case this blog post of yours spawns a spurt of reviews.

    • Hi TomCat, as always you should consider me ready and primed to be on the receiving end (sic)! What io particularly like is the fact that the TV and novels are such different animals and yet are inextricably linked – but I enjoy them separately and together, which is certainly unusual for me as I tend to find them blending together in these situations. Really look forward to reading your reviews!

  6. H.L. Banks says:

    I have been a fan of Colin Dexter’s books for years and cheerfully re-read them for those subleties I missed on first reading. I have watched some of the TV shows years ago and your post has re-ignited by interest so on-line shopping I go. Thanks.

    • Hi there, thanks very much for the comments. I do find the books and the TV series to be something I can turn back to at every time and so far they have never lost their appeal – true perennials in the mystery firmament!

  7. Skywatcher says:

    I have to agree with Puzzle Doctor; I do enjoy LEWIS more than MORSE. I just find that it manages a pretty high standard, unlike its parent programme which could become alarmingly bad at times. I would also disagree that MIDSOMMER MURDERS is infinitely inferior. They’re two very different series; MORSE is rather self important and serious, whilst MM has its tongue in its cheek, and unashamedly revels in the more ridiculous aspects of the genre.

    • Hello there, thanks very much for the comments.I do watch and enjoy LEWIS but I it is a lighter show, with less complex plots, like MIDSOMMER; they both work on their won terms of course, but to me they seem inferior partly because they are less ambitious; MORSE really did something new in term of TV detectives, using the two hour slot for a more novelistic type of movie with more in-depth characterisation and often genuinely complex stories that required patience end perseverance to work out, which you could never accuse the other two of (or A TOUCH OF FROST either for that matter).

  8. Dir says:

    I started with Lewis first and graduated to Morse. For sure I agree Morse’s sex related hankering is toned down in the TV version. But the way Thaw goes about it is unmistakable. His lingering glances are staple of many episodes but in some episodes they get more play. He more human and more interesting for that.

  9. Hi Dhiraj, thanks for the comments and I quite agree – Morse’s appetite for the ladies is certainly there in the TV series too, even if cleaned up a bit – mainly the relationships are presented as romantic yearning and rather less carnal perhaps – either way, it just sets him up for disappointment of course but it serves the dynamic so well as Morse is inevitably the outsider looking in while Lewis is the Everyman looking out. One of the very smart things about the LEWIS spin-off, apart from the crucial rile of Hathaway, has been to see Lewis move a bit towards his old mentor has he grows older and he too suffers loss.

  10. Yvette says:

    A wonderful tribute to one of my favorite shows. Though I admit I’ve never read any of the books – not sure why – I did love the series and tried never to miss it. Now that you’ve mentioned your favorite of the books, I may take a look. 🙂

    I love anything Oxford related, so for me, the setting of MORSE carried a great deal of weight. I also adore the theme music. I was so fond of John Thaw as Morse that I found it difficult to watch him and accept him as anyone else.

    The last show in the series was very hard for me to watch. My favorite moment: When Lewis bends down to kiss the dead body of Morse. Just so touching.

    I do like INSPECTOR LEWIS. though I haven’t seen as many of them as I would like.

    As for MIDSOMER MURDERS, I don’t like the actors in it, so I stopped watching (more or less) after the first few episodes. (The first few were actually the best as later, from what I could gather, the production values which are what had me watching the show to begin with, sort of disappeared.)

    • Hello Yvette, thanks for the comments. The books are definitely worth a read though they were adapted very ‘freely’ shall we say, usually making the settings and people much more upmarket in the process – in actual fact I don;t have a problem with this as it means they are much more distinct as entities. I picked LAST SEEN WEARING partly because the differences in the adaptation were so marked but Puzzledoctor is right to single out THE WAY THROUGH THE WOODS as a very good novel – I would also add SERVICE OF ALL THE DEAD, though the TV version is a lot closer to the book so, in a sense, you may get less out of it if you remember the adaptation.

      I’ve never been a big fan of MIDSOMMER though I must admit I never really noticed a dropping off in production values – but I agree about the actors – not even in the same league as MORSE, but then, what is?

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  13. Ap says:

    Actually Daniel Boyle as you call him is the same Danny Boyle who directed Trainspotting Slumdog millionaire a fine director and writer.In my opinion the best of the brilliant Morse series was Second Time Around written by Daniel Boyle

    • Hi Andrew, thanks for stopping by. However, while there is obvious room for confusion, these really are two completely different people. Daniel Boyle wrote five episodes of Morse and is from Greenock in Scotland. He became a full time writer in 1990 and worked on Hamish Macbeth as well as Rebus and also co-wrote an episode of Lewis. You can see his credits at his agent’s website here. I’ve seen him interviewed on TV and is definitely not the same person as the English director Danny Boyle, who directed two episodes of Morse and is from Manchester.

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  16. I personally prefer the Morse of the books. They piled too much misery on him in the tv series, saddling him with a wicked stepmother, and all that business with his dying ex girlfriend etc. I like the more robust character of the books.

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