Colin Dexter died on the first day of Spring, 2017: March 21st. He was a good age, eighty-six years old. Most of his life was spent as a teacher, but Dexter will not be remembered primarily as an educator. He was the author of a series of intricate detective stories set in his native city of Oxford featuring a Detective Inspector in Thames Valley Police. His Inspector Morse books have sold in their millions and spawned at least one iconic television series.
Colin Dexter first took up writing detective fiction at the age of forty-two, though he admits he’d been reading it most of his life. The Inspector Morse books were the only successful fiction he wrote. For more details about Norman Colin Dexter’s life, you should read his obituary in The Guardian here.
I’m not going to claim Colin was the best detective writer who ever lived. In fact, his familiar, wandering style irritated me beyond belief. Often, I would wince at his obvious cleverness. Colin Dexter’s claim to immortality rests in his ability to form a puzzle and tease it out into a great story. The cleverness of the Morse novels prevented detective fiction from falling completely into the morass of mediocrity it was heading for in the 1970s and 1980s.
Morse didn’t arrive perfectly formed in 1975’s debut, Last Bus To Woodstock. Colin Dexter may have created the character of Inspector Morse in his books, but as far as I am concerned, the characters did not fully come alive until after the TV series began. Unusually for television, producer Kenny McBain and his team reworked the novels until they became better than the original.
As the series progressed on television, Colin Dexter admitted that John Thaw had become his idea of who Morse was. I’m sure that Kevin Whately became Lewis for him as well. Colin worked as an advisor to the spin-off series, Lewis, which very occasionally managed to emulate the high standards of the original Inspector Morse television films.
When the series of novels began, Detective Inspector Morse was a completely different character to that portrayed on the screen. He was little more than a bitter but clever, drunken womaniser. That may be a little harsh, but only a little. Colin’s characterization of Morse in the novels began to gradually change after the first TV film hit the screens in 1987. He became more and more like the TV character with each succeeding novel. Even the car he drove changed from a Lancia to the familiar red Jaguar Mark 2 of the TV screen.
Last Bus To Ramsgate
Keen-eyed readers may have spotted that the title of my novelette, Last Bus To Ramsgate, is a tribute to Colin Dexter, reflecting the first Inspector Morse book. At the risk of spoiling any surprises, the plot of my version is nothing like Colin’s. I’ll be honest and say it owes more to Agatha Christie’s Ordeal by Innocence, with several twists thrown in for good measure. Click here to join my email list and receive your free copy of Last Bus to Ramsgate. Once you have read it, please let me know what you think.
Colin Dexter, Inspector Morse Books author, video
This Youtube video, made at Oxford University roughly two years before his death, shows Colin Dexter as he really was towards the end of his life. Although ailing, as he admits in his opening remarks, it’s impossible not to laugh at his enduring wit, and the twinkle in his eyes shines out like a beacon. If you can find 66 minutes to watch the video, I highly recommend that you do so. It’s slow in pace and he repeats himself quite a lot, but it offers several insights into Colin Dexter and Inspector Morse.
I’ll come back after you’ve watched it for some closing remarks on Colin Dexter and his books featuring Inspector Morse.
The Lasting Legacy of the Inspector Morse Books
By the time John Thaw died in 2002, TV had swallowed up the entire Inspector Morse books canon, plus a number of stories specially created for the screen. The writers who contributed original stories include Anthony Minghella, Julian Mitchell, and Daniel Boyle. The latter is not to be confused with film director Danny Boyle, who directed two episodes: Masonic Mysteries (series 4), and Cherubim and Seraphim (series 6). With Thaw out of the picture, it was hard to see where the series could go.
But ever commercially-motivated, ITV wasn’t going to let its cash cow escape without a wrangle. Endeavour followed in 2012. This was a prequel series named after Morse’s first name. This had been a closely-guarded secret until novel number 12, Death Is Now My Neighbour, revealed it in 1996. Endeavour was filming its third series at the time of Colin’s death.
Endeavour wasn’t the first Morse spin-off. Lewis (Inspector Lewis in the USA) began production in 2005 and only came to a shuddering halt ten years later, when its star, Kevin Whately, decided that enough was enough. He said, “There were 33 Inspector Morse stories. I suppose it’s a sentimental thing but I wouldn’t want to do more Lewis than we did Morse because I do still think of it as an offshoot.” In the end, Lewis appeared for 33 episodes.
The most remarkable thing about the Lewis TV series was that the bumbling but reliable idiot of the Inspector Morse stories had somehow developed a keen brain in the meantime. Possibly he’d followed the advice of Jeeves in the PG Wodehouse stories and devoured lots of fish.
Inspector Morse Books or TV Films?
If I’m being brutally honest, I have to admit I prefer the TV films to the novels. Thanks to the creative team at Zenith Pictures, the best of the fiction Colin Dexter wrote has been taken and improved on to make some of the best screen mysteries ever exposed onto film. Colin collaborated with the team from the start, which was remarkable in itself. Usually authors of books adapted for the screen take great pleasure in distancing themselves from the resulting product.
Colin assisted with stories and was generally a benevolent presence on set. He famously made a cameo appearance in every Inspector Morse film. He was then wise enough to write subsequent novels as imagined in the television films. That takes guts.
Actors John Thaw and Kevin Whately deserve praise for their interpretation of their characters. I’m sure the finished product wouldn’t have been so rounded or polished without their craft. To my mind, Inspector Morse was a great collaboration. Of course, it wouldn’t have been worth a hill of beans (as they say) with Colin Dexter’s original idea and stories.
- 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)
- The Daughters of Cain (1994)
- Death is Now My Neighbour (1996)
- The Remorseful Day (1999
Complete List of Inspector Morse TV Episodes
(Followed by the first date of broadcast in the UK).
Series 1 (1987)
- The Dead of Jericho / 6 January 1987
- The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn / 13 January 1987
- Service of All the Dead / 20 January 1987
Series 2 (1988)
- The Wolvercote Tongue / 25 December 1987
- Last Seen Wearing / 8 March 1988
- The Settling of the Sun / 5 March 1988
- Last Bus to Woodstock / 22 March 1988
Series 3 (1989)
- Ghost in the Machine / 4 January 1989
- The Last Enemy / 11 January 1989
- Deceived by Flight / 18 January 1989
- The Secret of Bay 5B / 25 January 1989
Series 4 (1990)
- The Infernal Serpent / 3 January 1990
- The Sins of the Fathers / 10 January 1990
- Driven to Distraction / 17 January 1990
- Masonic Mysteries / 24 January 1990
Series 5 (1991)
- Second Time Around / 20 February 1991
- Fat Chance / 27 February 1991
- Who Killed Harry Field? / 13 March 1991
- Greeks Bearing Gifts / 20 March 1991
- Promised Land / 27 March 1991
Series 6 (1992)
- Dead on Time / 26 February 1992
- Happy Families / 11 March 1992
- The Death of the Self / 25 March 1992
- Absolute Conviction / 8 April 1992
- Cherubim and Seraphim / 15 April 1992
Series 7 (1993)
- Deadly Slumber / 6 January 1993
- The Day of the Devil / 13 January 1993
- Twilight of the Gods / 20 January 1993
Series 8 (1995-2000)
- The Way Through the Woods / 29 November 1995
- The Daughters of Cain / 27 November 1996
- Death Is Now My Neighbour / 19 November 1997
- The Wench Is Dead / 11 November 1998
- The Remorseful Day / 15 November 2000
Final Word on Colin Dexter and the Inspector Morse Books
I don’t want to make it sound like I am less than impressed by Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse books. Nothing could be further from the truth. Many people will swear that they are among the best Crime Fiction ever written. Although I wouldn’t go quite that far, I really did enjoy reading the books as they came out, especially the middle order titles such as The Wench Is Dead and The Secret That Is Ours.
Colin was famously a crossword buff and the puzzles were the part of the writing he most enjoyed. At the heart of every Inspector Morse book is a conundrum, a mystery Morse fears he cannot solve. As I’ve said before, I thought the puzzles worked better on the screen than in print. This was partly because the camera can be more selective than any author can afford to be when writing.
Puzzlers like Colin Dexter enjoy fooling their audiences. The pleasure they receive is greatly reduced if they are forced to cheat by withholding clues or giving misinformation. There is a difference between misdirection and misinformation, as every magician knows. If you can play fair and still fool your readers, then you are a genius of Mystery Fiction. Colin Dexter was such an author.
I have a feeling that my enjoyment of the Inspector Morse books was greatly enhanced by being able to bring to mind the Oxford of the television series.
Colin Dexter, you made a tremendous impact of Crime and Mystery Fiction in the 20th Century. You will be sorely missed.