Colin Dexter has died aged 86. To crime fiction fans he will of course be remembered as the creator of Inspector More and Sergeant Lewis, two of Oxford’s finest detectives. Dexter was also an educator and a crossword buff, and both of these elements regularly crept in to his novels and short stories.
I only got to meet him once, some 25 years ago at a book signing for his (then) latest Morse book, The Jewel That Was Ours, in London’s then premiere bricks and mortar mystery bookshop, Murder One. He was jovial, welcoming and engaged and was great to talk to. He kindly signed copies of all his Morse paperbacks for me, as a wedding present for my cousin Simon, who loves Dexter even more than I do. Below is my celebration of the Morse books and TV series, revised from a post that originally appeared many years ago, as a tribute to the great Dexter.
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:
- Last Bus to Woodstock (1975)
- Last Seen Wearing (1976)
- The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn (1977)
- Service of All the Dead (1979)
- The Dead of Jericho (1981)
- The Riddle of the Third Mile (1983)
- The Secret of Annexe 3 (1986)
- The Wench is Dead (1989)
- The Jewel That Was Ours (1991)
- The Way Through the Woods (1992)
- Morse’s Greatest Mystery and Other Stories (1993 / 94)
- The Daughters of Cain (1994)
- Death is Now My Neighbour (1996)
- 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 with 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 as 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 series 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 (1977)
This early novel has a particularly clever gambit based on hearing loss (with which Dexter himself is afflicted) and is probably my favourite overall;
Last Seen Wearing (1976)
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 (1999)
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)
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 went on to make 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.
While I was never as keen on the Lewis continuation, which concluded after 33 two-hour episodes (exactly the same as the original Morse series, not coincidentally), regular readers will know what a fan I am of Endeavour, in which Shaun Evans is sublime playing Morse as a young man at the beginning of his career in 1960s Oxford. Dexter, who had cameos in many episodes of the three series, truly lives on in his fictional creations. Thank you.