Not every avid viewer of Inspector Morse is a fan of the late Colin Dexter’s novels. In common with other fictional detectives of the era (Jonathan Gash’s Lovejoy, Reginald Hill’s Andy Dalziel), Morse had some of his rougher edges smoothed away in the transition to telly; in the books the character has a gamier flavour, being even more of a bully, a boozer and, frankly, an old perv. And of course in the novels Morse cannot call on the piercing blue eyes and air of crumpled nobility of the late, great John Thaw to help his claim on the reader’s sympathy.
But any reader who picks up, say, Death Is Now My Neighbour, the opening chapter of which finds Morse enthusing about the film Copenhagen Red-Hot Sex, is advised to persist. These are fine books, and important ones. As Val McDermid noted recently, there were four writers in the generation before hers who reshaped the British crime novel: PD James, Ruth Rendell, Reginald Hill, and Colin Dexter.
Of these four Dexter was the last to begin writing and the first to stop. Where the other three would never have dreamed of killing off their sleuths, he happily inflicted cardiac failure on Morse in 1999 and settled down to a long retirement.
He did not appear to burn with a passionate need to write, but instead seemed to regard his authorial career as simply a civilised way of making a bit of money. He thought that plot was more important than characterisation (and harder to do well) — anathema to most modern crime writers, who are often less concerned with leading readers up the garden path than sitting them down and giving them their views on the human condition.
Dexter was never solemn, and peppered his books with donnish jokes. Many of the chapter epigraphs are invented quotations from the writings of Diogenes Small, an 18th-century lexicographer who — if you look carefully at the dates that appear in brackets after his name — appears to have died at the age of eight.
Dexter sought primarily to entertain, and fittingly enough there was something of the showman about him in person. He delighted in his Hitchcockian cameos in Morse and its spin-offs, and in old age toured with a one-man show, full of shaggy, self-deprecating anecdotes. Sharing a stage with Ken Dodd at the Cheltenham Literary Festival a few years ago, he said he would have liked to have been a stage entertainer.
Frustrated performers often make good schoolteachers, and Dexter was by all accounts a very good one, until worsening deafness forced him to give up teaching (he writes very movingly about the loneliness and frustrations of the deaf in such novels as The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn). His life changed after he began to write the first Morse novel, Last Bus to Woodstock (1975), during a wet holiday in Wales.
The key Morse traits manifested themselves early on: weakness for women, meanness with money, pedantic insistence on correct English usage, predilections (shared with his creator) for beer, crosswords, Wagner, AE Housman and The Archers (the commercial TV version of Morse was not allowed to retain this last enthusiasm). Also quickly established was Morse’s tendency to go barking up wrong trees, to devise half a dozen solutions to the crime more ingenious than commonsensical.
In the first novel he comes up with several clever interpretations of a code concealed in a pseudonymous letter sent by an unidentified murderer; days pass before Sergeant Lewis gently suggests it might be worth checking the letter for fingerprints. He is far from an exemplary policeman. Somebody more plodding, one often feels, would have caught the villain more quickly and saved the life of a second or third victim.
Dexter’s characteristic faults were established early on, too. Those crime writers who regard “authenticity” as a guarantee of quality, a numerous band today, must balk at his lack of procedural and forensic knowledge, at the way in which Morse can never be bothered to read a pathologist’s report. More jarringly, Dexter’s attitude to his working-class or uneducated characters is oddly patronising at best, and often downright contemptuous.
But in many ways his influence is incalculable. He was the first British writer to tether a whole crime series to a real place, so that the location becomes, in a way, as important a character as the detective. In his loving depiction of Oxford he showed how it was possible to evoke a city so convincingly that the reader would happily swallow the more outlandish elements of the stories, most notably the idea that the intelligentsia are so full of deadly hate towards each other that the city has a higher murder rate than Caracas.
Above all, he showed that there was still an appetite in the modern world for the civilised Christie-esque whodunnit, something that offers pleasures that can’t be found in either the more serious, morally complex crime novel or the gritty gorefest. Morse deserves to endure on the page for as long as he undoubtedly will on the screen.