Colin Dexter Diary


A seven week tour of the UK with the Mark Morris Dance Group was a good opportunity to revisit a group of classic British mysteries.

Last Bus to Woodstock. The series succeeds because of the charismatic characters. Inspector Morse is quicksilver, Sergeant Lewis is stolid. Together, they are perfect for low-key domestic drama and comedy.

Paired male investigators who spar amusingly with each other go back to Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson; another probable source are the exploits of Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. (Both Wolfe and Morse formulate their theories after correcting the grammar of Goodwin and Lewis.)

Dexter’s general form combines surreal “Golden Age of Detection” murder puzzles (Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, John Dickson Carr, etc.) with the modern “meat and potatoes” police procedural. (At the time of Last Bus to Woodstock, the influential procedurals written by Per Wahlöö and Maj Sjöwall had been on the market for about a decade; Ruth Rendell’s slightly more fantastical series with Inspector Wexford and DI Mike Burden also find an echo in Dexter.)

In later books, Dexter would offer quotes at the top of every chapter. Passages by Dorothy Sayers and Julian Symons are explicitly relevant to Dexter’s use of genre:

“The detective novelist, as a class, hankers after complication and ingenuity, and is disposed to reject the obvious and acquit the accused if possible. He is uneasy until he has gone further and found some new and satisfying explanation of the problem.” Sayers, The Murder of Julia Wallace (quoted in Dexter’s The Wench is Dead)

“In the police-procedural, a fair degree of realism is possible, but it cannot be pushed too far for fear that the book might be as dull as the actual days of a policeman.” Julian Symons, Bloody Murder (quoted in Dexter’s The Jewel That Was Ours)

At first this mash-up was a bit of a stretch. The plots of the early Morse books would make more sense emanating from something like Dickson Carr’s “Department of Queer Complaints” than the sober environs of the Thames Valley Police Department. Over time, visible joins in the workmanship would smooth out as Dexter gained experience.

In the Golden Age, the detective usually only offered one solution, the correct one. E.C. Bentley spoofed that trope in Trent’s Last Case, where the lead makes a fool of himself by guessing incorrectly. Dexter seems to have taken that idea to heart, for almost every Morse book has our hero stumbling down blind alleys. These mistakes also settle down a bit as the series progresses.

Last Bus to Woodstock concludes with a hard-boiled cliché that started with The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett.

Last Seen Wearing.  Dexter’s sentences are an intoxicating blend of erudition and forward motion. Chapter fifteen of Last Seen Wearing begins with a passage reminiscent of Anthony Powell:

The brief Indian summer, radiant and beneficent, was almost at an end. On Friday evening the forecast for the weekend was unsettled, changeable weather with the possibility of high wind and rain; and Saturday was already appreciably cooler, with dark clouds from the west looming over North Oxfordshire. Gloomily the late-night weatherman revealed to the nation a map of the British Isles almost obliterated by a series of close, concentric millibars with their epicentrum somewhere over Birmingham, and prophesied in minatory tones of weak fronts and associated depressions. Sunday broke gusty and raw, and although the threatened rain storm held its hand, there was, at 9:00 a.m, a curiously deadened, almost dreamlike quality about the early morning streets, and the few people there were seemed to move as in a silent film.

In the first two books, Dexter describes the sex lives of attractive teenage girls in terms both unwholesome and judgmental. It’s pretty creepy, like a male teacher perving on his female students.

The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn. Dexter thankfully quits the “young dead sexy women” theme and comes up with a fresh conceit involving internal problems at the Oxford Foreign Examinations Syndicate. The complicated plot swarms the book two-thirds of the way through and the multiple endings seem to take forever to resolve. Surely Morse could have been sued for false arrest…? Puzzle fans might rejoice, but I pay more attention to the larger beats of story instead of the minutiae of alibi, and occasionally tire of the way Dexter “hankers after complication and ingenuity.”

Service of All the Dead  One of the most atmospheric of the series, all gloom and doom, with notably vivid descriptions of St. Frideswide’s church. This novel also offers an unusually high body count and the only climax where Morse himself is threatened by the murderer.

The Dead of Jericho. My least favorite of the series: the through-line of the story is exceptionally tenuous and there is less humor than usual. Dexter confounds by unwrapping a superb use of Greek Myth before tossing it aside as a false solution.

A couple of years later, The Dead of Jericho would kickstart the wildly successful adaptations for television starring John Thaw and Kevin Whately. Fans of the novels might have been surprised when the very first scene of the new show had Morse in a kind of hardboiled action sequence, using a vintage Jaguar as the means to capture two minor villains. Still, the basic erudite tone of the series remained intact. Dexter himself must have seen the books and teleplays as complementary, for he eventually gave the Morse that Jag (who had been driving a Lancia at first) and changed his leads to look like Thaw and Whately. Like everyone else, I admire the atmospheric Inspector Morse theme music by Barrington Pheloung.

The Riddle of the Third Mile. Thankfully, the humor returns in the next installment.  Dexter has a lot of fun showing how the high ranking staff members at the Lonsdale College in Oxford are just as human as anyone else. A headless corpse haunts the proceedings, and the final reveal is a genuine surprise.

The Secret of Annexe 3 has one of Dexter’s best puzzles, with a few “fair play” clues that show real brilliance. Sarah Jonstone is a particularly good side character, and Lewis manages to make up his own fantastical incorrect solution. The charming quotes at the top of the chapters are permanently in place and the television show has just begun airing. Good times for Morse and Dexter!

The Wench is Dead Now that the form is fully established, the author can take greater chances. The Wench is Dead is undoubtedly influenced by Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time: Morse is in the hospital and reopens a case from 1859 via a book about murder on the Oxford Canal. The British Crime Writers’ Association awarded this book the Gold Dagger Award for the best crime novel of the year.

The Jewel That Was Ours. A busload of tourists is also the milieu of The Flight of the Falcon by Daphne du Maurier and Nemesis by Agatha Christie; the stolen jewel conceit goes back at least to Wilkie Collins; an unexpected double meaning in the title turns out to be utterly Dexter. Almost all of the Morse plots require conspiracy amongst sinners. By this point in the series, it is easy to enjoy how an obscure and confusing collection of motives and alibis gradually resolve into a satisfying murder puzzle.

Lewis unselfconsciously describes his relationship to his boss:

An hour later, as he drove the pair of them down to Oxford, Lewis felt strangely content. He was never happier than when watching Morse come face to face with a mystery: it was like watching his chief tackle some fiendishly devised crossword (as Lewis had often done), with the virgin grid on the table in front of him, almost immediately coming up with some sort of answer to the majority of the clues — and then with Lewis himself, albeit only occasionally, supplying one blindingly obvious answer to the easiest clue in the puzzle, and the only one that Morse had failed to fathom.

The Way Through the Woods. Crosswords were crucial to Dexter not just as a hobby but as scaffolding for his fiction. He explained:

….I became quite fanatical and gradually improved, progressing to the stage where I could enter the [Observer] monthly competition. As I scanned the list of winners I noticed there were a couple of names that used to appear quite regularly: CJ Morse and Mrs B Lewis….

…When I came to write my first Inspector Morse novel, Last Bus to Woodstock, it seemed only natural to choose Morse and Lewis, two names that had become such a big presence in my life, as the names for the two key figures. In fact, every character in that book was named after regular entrants in Observer crossword competitions and crossword compilers, except the murderer.

Morse does crosswords throughout the series, timing his performance and stumping Lewis with difficult clues. All that byplay comes to its apotheosis in The Way Through the Woods when murder is discovered thanks to an anagram posted in a newspaper. As a whole this book is my favorite of the series. Morse’s personality is irresistible as his many mistakes smoothly take the plot forward.

The Daughters of Cain. Morse and Lewis slowly figure out a conspiracy between likable killers. The big alibi misdirect is excellent and a feckless romance for the Chief Inspector is more believable than usual. (It is easier to imagine women being instantly attracted to Morse now that he is John Thaw.) The author pays tribute to another important and idiosyncratic forebear, G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown.

Death Is Now My Neighbour. Namechecks Agatha Christie and her classic The ABC Murders. Unlike Christie, Dexter was not prolific. When fans asked him why he killed off Morse, Dexter replied, “He died of natural causes!” One paragraph may be intentionally meta:

Furthermore, Morse was beginning to feel increasingly worried about his present failure – like some hitherto highly acclaimed novelist with a score of bestsellers behind him who is suddenly assailed by a nightmarish doubt about his ability to write that one further winner; by a fear that he has come to the end of his creative output, and must face the possibility of defeat.

For the first and last time, a pistol is the murder weapon. There’s nothing hardboiled about Death Is Now My Neighbour otherwise: Dexter’s hand is steady during another expansive and confident ramble.

The Remorseful Day. My mother gave me my first Inspector Morse novel in the late 1980s. I made my way through the series in haphazard fashion, eventually catching up just in time to purchase the final installment in hardback right as it came out in 1999. At the time I felt vaguely disappointed by a general lack of tension. From a fresh vantage point, I now see that The Remorseful Day is of a piece with The Daughters of Cain and Death is Now My Neighbour. The pacing of these last three books is perhaps an acquired taste, all less obviously charismatic than The Secret of Annexe 3, The Wench is Dead, or The Way Through the Woods.  What the final trio offers in place of narrative drive is a finely calibrated sense of atmosphere, place, and occasion. Now that I understand their music better, I will return to these novels again in the future with greater pleasure — pleasure, but sadness, too, because the slow demise of our beloved Morse is observed closely and with unsparing detail.

Unlike the previous two stories, the plot of The Remorseful Day is as byzantine as any of early books. It all works pretty well — at least better than in something like The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn — and a little subplot about internal deception at HQ is a fitting coda.

The head man, Strange, usually keeps up with Morse’s wordplay better than Lewis. When he is about them drive away from a pub, Strange tells Morse:

“Fasten your seat-belt! Know what that’s an anagram of, by the way? ‘Truss neatly to be safe.’ Clever, eh? Somebody told me that once. You probably.”

For a few seconds Morse looked slightly puzzled.

“Couldn’t have been me. It’s got to be ‘belts.’ Otherwise there’s one ’s’ short.”

“Just put the bloody thing on!”

After reading this passage, I picked up a pencil and discovered that “The Remorseful Day” anagrams as He Fade(s) Truly Morse.