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.