An Evolving Mystery*

You may or may not be aware of this, but the world of crime fiction lost a very influential and talented member today with the passing of Colin Dexter. Whether you’re a fan of his work or not, it’s hard to deny the impact that his stories have had on the genre.

Dexter’s work is interesting on several levels, and one post couldn’t really do it justice. But here are just a few things that (at least to me) have made his work such an important part of crime fiction.

We first met Dexter’s sleuth, Inspector Morse, in 1975’s Last Bus to Woodstock. So, both chronologically and in other ways, Dexter’s work arguably bridges the gap between the end of the Golden Age of crime fiction (Agatha Christie, for instance, ended her writing career in the early 1970s) and the coming of the modern era of crime fiction. And we see that in several aspects of Dexter’s writing.

In novels such as The Way Through the Woods, The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn, and Death is Now My Neighbour, Dexter created complex, traditional mystery plots. Many of them are, in that sense, reminiscent of the whodunits of the Golden Age. Finding the killer is a matter of checking alibis, looking at the clues, and so on. But, like some of the Golden Age writers, Dexter included plot twists such as issues of identification, words (mis)heard, and so on.

In those senses, one could easily argue that Dexter’s work resembles the Golden Age that came before him. But there are also many elements that we see in more modern crime fiction. The psychology of family dysfunction, for instance, plays an important part in The Remorseful Day; and we arguably see more of a focus on that aspect than on, say, the whodunit sort of plot that we see in some older mysteries. There are other ways, too, in which this series reflects more contemporary approaches to telling a crime story.

Inspector Morse is, as fans will know, a member of the Thames Valley Police. So, among other things, we get a look at UK police procedure at the time. There were certainly police sleuths before Morse. But this series offers an interesting look at the evolution of the police procedural. In many (certainly not all!) earlier novels featuring police, we don’t see a lot of the coppers’ home lives – certainly they don’t form story arcs. Just to offer an example, we know, for instance, that Dorothy Sayers’ Inspector Parker is married to Lord Peter Wimsey’s sister, Mary. And there are some home-based conversations that include them. But there aren’t really the sort of ‘domestic life’ story arcs that we often see in today’s police procedural.

We see the glimmerings of those arcs in some of Dexter’s novels. For instance, fans will know that Dexter has more than one relationship in his life, although he doesn’t marry. He has medical problems in a few of the novels, too (The Wench is Dead and The Remorseful Day come to mind). These sub-plots and story arcs aren’t the central focus of Dexter’s novels, but they do show him as a fully fleshed-out character (more on that shortly). Sergeant Lewis, too, has a home life, and we hear about that from time to time. Again, though, it’s not the main focus of the novels.

You might easily argue that there are other police procedurals of the time (for instance, Reginald Hill’s Dalziel/Pascoe novels and Ruth Rendell’s Reg Wexford novels) that also made a real impact on the genre. And you’d be right. They did. Work such as Hill’s, Rendell’s, and Dexter’s set the stage for, among other series, Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus series, Peter May’s Superintendent Roy Grace series, and Ann Cleeves’ DI Vera Stanhope series.

So why does Dexter’s series really stand out? Another element is arguably Morse’s character. He’s complicated, sometimes moody, and at times short-tempered, especially with what he sees as ineptitude. He likes his pint (frequently having more liquid than solid at meals). And he doesn’t always play by the proverbial rules, either in terms of tact or in terms of policy. He’s blind to his own health problems, too. Still, he’s not a stereotypical ‘demon-haunted detective.’ He knows the value of proper procedure, and he isn’t a maverick sort of loner, who breaks every rule and doesn’t care. He can be quite compassionate in his way, too. He is, in other words, a complex human being, as we all are. And he’s unique.

Morse is also a brilliant detective. Dexter didn’t make the mistake of allowing Morse to always be right. In fact, he blunders more than once as he investigates. But he gets to the solution of some very difficult puzzles.

If the series were only about Morse, it might still be well-regarded. But Dexter also created Sergeant George Lewis (his first name was changed to Robbie for the television series). Lewis is by no means an awed onlooker in these novels. Yes, Morse is his boss. But Lewis is bright, thoughtful, and a skilled detective in his own right. Sometimes he sees things more clearly than Morse does, and he is better with certain aspects of investigation. They’re different sorts of people, though, and the dynamic between them is arguably another element that makes this series distinctive.

And then, of course, there’s the Oxford-area setting. Fans of the series will know that Dexter depicts the area vividly. There’s the ‘town/gown’ dynamic, the challenges of living in a large modern city (don’t get Morse started on traffic and parking), and the unique history of the place.

There’s also the very well-regarded television series (and spinoffs) that came from and with the novels. You’ll probably know that Dexter had a great deal to do with the writing and production of the original Inspector Morse show. That’s arguably part of why, for many people, John Thaw was Inspector Morse, and Kevin Whately is Lewis. In fact, the show and the series were so closely integrated that Dexter’s The Jewel That Was Ours is actually an adaptation of an Inspector Morse episode called The Wolvercote Tongue.

No matter what you think of Dexter’s work, of Morse, or of the television series (if you’ve seen it), it’s hard to deny the impact of these novels and their author. Dexter will be much missed.


*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Barrington Pheluong.


Filed under Colin Dexter, Inspector Morse

43 responses to “An Evolving Mystery*

  1. Great salute to a major figure – thanks Margot.

  2. I was so very sad to hear this news today – Dexter has been a huge influence on my own work and I adore Morse both in book and TV form. A great literary giant who will be sorely missed.

    • He will, indeed, Lucy. I’ve always loved the Morse character, too, both in the books and in the TV adaptation. Interesting that Dexter has impacted your own writing. I think he has mine, too.

  3. Pingback: An Evolving Mystery* | picardykatt's Blog

  4. Great post Margot and a real loss to crime fiction. He was a brilliant writer and there will never be another Morse!

  5. Man, super sad to hear this, and a great post to help us track the lineage. I think your right in that Dexter picks right up from where Christie leaves off bringing new life and the next stage of ideas to crime.

    • Thank you, TRiW. I really do see Dexter as picking up the detective story tradition and moving it along. And, like you, I was very, very sad to learn of his passing.

  6. Such a sad loss for our community. He’ll be missed by so many.

  7. I’ve never read the books, but I bingewatched the series one summer and enjoyed myself thoroughly. The “sequels” – Inspector Lewis, Endeavor – have also been excellent! Great celebration of Dexter’s writing, Margot!

    • Thank you very much, Brad. And I’m glad that you enjoyed the series. If you get the chance, I do recommend the books. In my opinion, they are crime fiction classics.

  8. mudpuddle

    another light gone… sad, but inevitable for all… very nice post; tx….

    anyone who likes Wagner wins a gold star in his copy book, imo…

    • You have a good point about Wagner, Mudpuddle. And I agree; it’s very sad, even if it was inevitable. Glad you enjoyed the post, and thanks for the kind words.

  9. Col

    A shame he’s passed. I’ve not read him yet, but will do one day. The TV series was very good, I did enjoy John Thaw as Morse.

    • It is a shame, Col. I’m glad you enjoyed the TV series (and I do agree with you about John Thaw). If you do get a chance to read the books, I hope you’ll like them.

  10. JanF

    Lovely tribute, Margot. Don’t know the books well having only read one – not sure why I haven’t read more as it was terrific. However, I have enjoyed the TV series and the spin-offs. John Thaw and Kevin Wheatley are great and Endevour is wonderful.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Janet. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. It’s also good to hear you enjoyed the Dexter novel that you read. If you get the chance, I recommend them as a series. And, speaking of series, I agree; Inspector Morse was fantastic, and the spinoffs have been very good, too, I think.

  11. Oh, I hadn’t heard that – sad news! In truth, I was more a fan of the TV series than the books, especially of Lewis, since I have a major soft spot for Kevin Whateley. But one day I shall try the books again and see if the passing of time allows me to warm to them more. Either way, he’s responsible for giving me many hours of pleasure, for which I’m grateful. A lovely tribute, Margot – thank you!

    • Thanks for the kind words, FictionFan. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. And I can hardly blame you for that soft spot for Kevin Whately. And, as you say, even if the books don’t sweep you away if you try them again, you’ve still had a wonderful time with the TV series. And Dexter gave us that, too, really.

  12. Well done Margot. I think you would not have needed a photo of Thaw for every reader to see Morse. You become truly famous when but one name is needed. Any mystery reader and mystery T.V. watcher would have no doubt who Morse is in print and on the screen.

    • Thank you, Bill. And you have a well-taken point about Morse’s (and Thaw’s) fame. They got to the point where every crime fiction fan would likely know them.

  13. There was a time in my life when I would watch the Morse series (borrowed on video from the British Council in Bucharest) obsessively and dream about visiting Oxford. I then got to read the books once I did come to the UK. It feels like they have always been part of my life. And, although I was less impressed with the TV spin-offs of Lewis and Endeavour, I have always come back to Morse for comfort and repose.

    • I know what you mean, Marina Sofia, of those books being a part of your life. They really do offer comfort, as well as being fine stories. And the TV series shared those stories all over the world. I’m sure you’re by no means the only one who watched them and dreamed of what Oxford would be like.

  14. Wonderful tribute, Margot. Sad to say this is one of those series that I’ve said I was going to read but just haven’t gotten around to it yet. I definitely need to do that.

  15. A fine tribute to a truly great writer of our times, Margot. To be honest, I have not done justice to his work.

  16. I read all the books and watched the tv series and Morse was was one of my gateways to crime fiction

  17. I was very much aware of the Inspector Morse TV series but I never had the chance to read Colin Dexter’s books. Last year I jotted Dexter’s name on my list of “to be read authors” so I definitely intend to read his work and I can’t wait to plow through the Morse series, watch the TV shows, and watch the spin-offs Endeavor and Lewis.

    Interesting that Colin Dexter came out with the Morse books not that long when Agatha Christie died. Compared to a lot of mystery writers out there that negatively criticizes Agatha Christie, Colin Dexter never did that. He saw that Christie was quite an influence on the genre and though Dexter used the elements from the Golden Age era, he also remained modern and contemporary as well. I remember going to the library and looking through one of his books and saw a diagram, one of those that you would normally see in an Agatha Christie or any mystery from the Golden Age. Not that many mystery writers do that today, not to my knowledge.

    • I really do hope you’ll enjoy the books, Sbrnseay. To me, anyway, they really do have elements of both classic/Golden Age mysteries (including some diagrams and charts), and elements of more contemporary crime novels. And, as you say, Dexter was never a critic of Christie’s work. As you say, he saw its influence. And his own work has been so influential, too, I think. Thanks for your thoughts on this, and I agree: a Morse binge sounds like a good idea!

  18. kathy d

    It’s sad news. I had not read Colin Dexter’s books, but have also enjoyed his Morse and Lewis TV series, as have many other commenters here.

    • I think it’s very sad news, too, Kathy. I’m glad you had the chance to enjoy the TV series, and I hope at some point you’ll get the chance to try the books. They’re well done.

  19. Great analysis on why the Morse books mattered, and Colin Dexter’s importance to the genre. I was lucky enough to meet Dexter in 2003; he was very personable and loved talking about the books and the films!

    • You were, indeed, lucky, Lourdes. It’s good to know that he was pleasant in person, and I’m not surprised he enjoyed talking about the books. From the interviews I’ve read and seen, he was passionate about his writing.

  20. tracybham

    Very nice overview and tribute, Margot. I have only read the first three in the series, but (as always) I have a few more on the TBR pile that I can read. I look forward to getting back to the series.

  21. Lovely blogpost, and you are so right about the ways in which he excelled, and was different from others.

    • Thank you, Moira. You put that so well, too: he was different from others. I always have a lot of respect for authors who add unique touches to the genre, and he certainly did.

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