Colin Dexter’s death at the age of 86 has revived the debate about “serious” versus “genre” novelists. Newspaper tributes rightly referred to the creator of Inspector Morse as a “crime writer” – and so he was. But the sophistication of his novels, like those of John le Carre or Patrick O'Brien, mounts a strong argument for the proposition that pigeonholing their work simply as “detective” or “spy” or “historical” fiction is to diminish their value.
Dexter’s writing draws frequently on literary and other arts – and it should be particularly valued for its complex and nuanced representations of the merits and pitfalls of education and high culture.
First published during the Thatcher years, Dexter’s novels speak with renewed force to my concerns about recent negative representations of intellect, education and the academy in media and society. In the past year alone, academics in the UK and US, for example, have been painted as threateningly left-wing, liberal (in the US), silly, idiotic, and irrational).
They’ve been accused of trampling on freedom of speech and, by the US education secretary Betsy de Vos, of brainwashing students – as well as epitomising self-righteousness and entitlement.
Dexter’s Oxford, which is the backdrop for Morse’s adventures, is the most enduring fictional representation of a UK university – perhaps any UK educational institution. It includes depictions of town as well as gown, and balances an idyllic surface by plumbing the murky depths of elitism and corruption.
In his own words, Dexter created Morse because of his perception that in 1970s British readers and viewers were “fed up” of American hard-boiled crime fiction – “people running up and down corridors” – and endless “car chases”, saying: “What we want is a bit more brains and a bit less brawn.” The actor Kevin Whately, who played Morse’s sergeant Robbie Lewis, has spoken of Dexter’s obsession with “alpha-brains” – the superior intellect with which he imbued his detective protagonist.
Morse never graduated from his Oxford undergraduate degree, but is ferociously agile at crosswords and passionate about opera. His uncertified intelligence in the novels is pivotal to his success as a detective – Morse has the knowledge and ability to match the Oxford dons and high-flying students he encounters (often finishing off quotations for them, to their surprise and chagrin). Meanwhile his outsider status allows him to investigate unhampered by the old boys’ network.
Although Dexter’s writing celebrates lively intellects and culture vultures, with or without the trappings of academic qualifications or wholly rarefied lifestyles, it also paints Morse as a bit of an intellectual snob himself, despite facing prejudice from the Oxford establishment that he failed to join when he dropped out of university. Dexter also slyly celebrates Lewis’s vast, up-to-date knowledge of popular culture, which invaluably complements his boss’s academic and cultural sophistication when it comes to solving puzzles.
Dexter’s ability to convincingly represent different perspectives on intellect and education arguably stems not just from his life experiences but, more importantly, his own attitudes towards them. Dexter grew up in the East Midlands and declared that his family owned only three books. He and his brother trained to be Classics and English teachers. As a result – and unlike Shakespeare, whom he conventionally termed “the greatest writer in English” – Dexter could certainly not be accused of having “small Latin and less Greek”. Meanwhile Dexter once described his brother as becoming a talented pianist and violist, with a penchant for Wagner – a trait instantly recognisable in Morse.
In a late 2015 interview with Susan Smith, a postgraduate researcher at the University of Birmingham, he paid tribute to his school English teacher – the aptly-named Mr Sharp – who made it his mission to guide the teenage Dexter through his “ignorance of English literature” and the entire canon of Thomas Hardy.
Dexter was particularly fond of the teaching tradition of learning passages of poetry and phrases from drama by heart. He used them consciously and unconsciously in writing and apparently penned them from memory, rather than searching for his allusions in books.
He also emphasised the difficulty readers today face in getting Shakespeare’s historical references and believed that the sounds of Shakespearean lines could be more accessibly pleasurable and valuable than what they actually meant. If this was a veiled attack on test-driven education, it is an interesting one given Dexter’s work for the University of Oxford’s local exam board, a body which designed and awarded vocational qualifications. Meanwhile, the emphasis on the sound of words is poignant given that the onset of deafness was the impetus for this first career move away from teaching.
Killing off experts
The “death of the expert” has often been announced in recent months, and alongside it a more widespread anti-intellectualism bemoaned. Dexter’s whodunnits and their descendants are saturated not just with erudite characters with wide-ranging specialisms, high cultural works and events (opera, classical music, literary festivals). They also exhibit an everyday joy in mental exercise given Morse’s fondness for crosswords, anagrams, and arithmetic.
Indeed, his works constitute opportunities for readers’ and viewers’ mental puzzling, including spotting Dexter in his Hitchcock-style cameos as well as his mischievous deliberate errors and made up quotations. Their popularity, still airing in prime-time slots on various, commercial, free-to-air channels, after over half a century, goes someway towards counterbalancing moral panic about alleged social apathy – even hostility – to intellect, education and the academy.
Interview with Colin Dexter
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In 1972 during a rainy holiday in Wales with his family, Colin Dexter sat in the kitchen, exasperated, after reading a boring crime novel. He decided to try his hand at writing a book himself and the result was Last Bus to Woodstock (1975). This novel, which was eagerly snatched up by mystery fans, introduced Inspector Morse—a man who fancied ale, crosswords, English literature, and Wagner. In many ways Morse’s interests mirror those of his creator, yet on most levels they are worlds apart. Mr. Dexter is hardly the curmudgeon that Morse is. He is a very gentle and mild-mannered man who has been happily married for the past 50 years and has two grown children.
A graduate of Cambridge University, Mr. Dexter was a secondary school classics teacher before deafness put a halt to his career. He then became Senior Assistant Secretary of the University of Oxford Delegacy of Local Examinations, a position he held for 22 years until retiring in 1988.
In 1987, Morse was adapted for television starring John Thaw as the title character. The series, which was hugely popular, ran until 2001. Mr. Dexter made a cameo in every episode of the series (a real treat for fans), and in one episode he even had a talking part.
Mr. Dexter has won several awards for his writing. In 1989 he was awarded the Golden Dagger by the CWA for The Wench is Dead. He won the award again in 1992 for The Way Through the Woods. In 1997 he received the CWA’s lifetime achievement award—the Diamond Dagger—for his body of work. And in 2000 he was awarded the Order of the British Empire.
Inspector Morse appeared in thirteen novels and several short stories. In the final novel of the series, Remorseful Day (1999), Inspector Morse passes away from natural causes. Sadly, unlike Sherlock Holmes’ apparent demise in “The Final Problem,” Morse’s death is not reversible.
Mr. Dexter lives in Oxford with his wife and spends a great deal of time doing charitable work.
AFG: So, tell us the story about how you started to write Inspector Morse.
CD: Well, I was on holiday with my family. I always had to go in August because of my work. This one August it was raining, as usual, and we were in a guest house. If there’s anything worse than being in a guest house with your family when it’s raining, well I don’t know! Anyway, they all wanted to go home and we were all fed up with the rain running down the windows. I went in the kitchen and locked the door and I started writing. There’d been two crime books in the guest house and I’d read one of them; I can’t remember what it was. I didn’t think I could do any better but I thought I could do almost as well. I don’t know if it was the first page or the first paragraph, but gradually a few ideas materialized. This must have been 1972 or 1973. One of the things I learned when I studied the classics and taught them was initium est dimidium facti—the beginning is half of the deed. I’ve never believed in writer’s block because my own view about beginning to write is that you shouldn’t think you’re going to write the best first sentence or the best first paragraph. I used to think, I’m probably going to write the worst first sentence ever written. Once you’ve done that you’re there, aren’t you? Once you’ve got something pretty terrible! When you look back on it, it’s never quite so bad as you thought. You can tart it up and spell a few difficult words correctly and put a few full stops in and you’re away. But I think, for me, it’s always been the initial business—just getting a word down, any words down, on a blank piece of paper. Once I’ve done that, I’m away. Beginning is one half of the deed.
AFG: So when you write, do you start out with an outline from chapter one to the last chapter, or do you just start and see where the writing takes you?
CD: With all the books I’ve written, I’ve always known what’s going to happen—except one book I had to change. But in all these others I had one idea and that was going to be the terminus ad quem. I wasn’t at all sure where I was going to start, but I knew perfectly well where I was going to end. I knew exactly what was going to happen in the last chapter but certainly not in the middle. I suppose I must be categorized as a whodunit writer rather than as, the kind of writer who concentrates on the motivation of crime. Like Aristotle said, you need a beginning and a middle and an end—but when I wrote I think that I never knew much about the middle. That was really a bit of freewheeling. There was, like Philip Larkin said, “a beginning, a muddle, and an end.” I did know where the end was, so if I am categorized, it would have to be as a whodunit man.
AFG: Well, I like whodunits a little more. Some of the mystery novels these days tend to be very dark and the authors seem to be trying to probe too much into the characters’ psychological depths.
CD: Yes. If you’re not careful, you’re reading a psychological handbook, aren’t you?
CD: You’re probably going to ask me later, I suppose, but certainly I’ve always very much enjoyed the big surprise of being led up the garden path by writers like Agatha Christie. You knew that she was pulling the wool over your eyes from page one, but you didn’t know how she was doing it until you got to the last chapter. And, all right, some of them are very much better than others, but she’d certainly have five or six titles in a list of the top twenty novels ever written in the whodunit genre because she had a wonderfully gifted imagination for puzzling the reader. I loved that surprise at the end.
AFG: I know! Who’d think of having a narrator as the murderer? Or all the characters dying in Ten Little Indians? So did you have any idea that the Morse books would be this successful when you started out?
CD: Oh, no. I’d no idea at all. As I say, I wanted to try to write a crime book and, in my mind, if I could have got through to the end of one book that would have been quite ample for me. I was working and earning well and I didn’t need to write books like some of my colleagues, who are driven to get their income from their books alone. I never had that at all. It never occurred to me that there would be a continuation after I had finally written the first one. I wrote it in longhand, as I’ve done with all of my books. I’ve never typed a word of any book I’ve written. After I finished it, I went through from the beginning and crossed things out, like Dr. Johnson advised.“Whenever you’ve written anything particularly fine, strike it out!” When I was done, I rewrote it and got somebody to type it. I submitted it in 1973 or 1974. That was the first work of fiction I’d ever done.
AFG: So tell us about some of the similarities you have to Morse, because I know you both enjoy classical music . . ..
CD: Yes. Well, like dear old Morse, I’ve been listening to Die Valkyrie. He was a great Wagner lover and so am I. I think that, really, the only important thing about Morse sometimes was that he was a very sensitive man. I think that if the Almighty—if there is an Almighty—has given me any gifts at all, it is sensitivity to the arts and certainly music and literature. Not quite so much painting. I’m a bit of novice at the visual arts. Morse was extraordinarily fond of Glenfiddich, a single malt Scotch, and any real ale. I’ve been like him all my life on that, and enjoyed alcohol far too much. I’m not so clever as Morse. What I wanted to do was to create someone who was extraordinarily clever, and the cleverest man I ever knew was a man called Sir Jeremy Morse who was Chairman of Lloyds Bank, President of the International Monetary Fund, and Fellow of All Souls, Oxford—a wonderful man and a big friend of mine. So I thought that I would have a detective who was extraordinarily clever mentally. I’m not like him in that respect and certainly not like him in meanness with money, I’m glad to say! As you probably know, poor old Sergeant Lewis on half the salary had to buy nine-tenths of the booze. I’m not like him in that respect! He was also extremely fond of the ladies whom he met occasionally. Most of them were the crooks. Well, a lot them were crooks. His temperament was very much on the pessimistic rather than the optimistic side. He expected that if it was going to turn out either good or bad, the odds were slightly on it being bad rather than good. I’ve always felt a little bit that way as well. Oddly enough, I’ve very often felt when I wake up [in the morning] that something terrible is going to happen that day. It’s like when you’re backing a horse—you’re expecting the thing to lose although you’ve bet on it to win.
AFG: So you’re a pessimist?
CD: I am indeed, yes. I’ve not much faith in the future of the planet and I’m not just thinking about Mr. Bush or global warming. I feel that we’ve lost our way and it looks as if, in so many fields, things are turning sour. Even democracy is turning sour, isn’t it?
AFG: Why do you think that’s happening?
CD: Well, I suppose it is partly that we’ve lacked, over the past three or four decades, any truly great world leaders. There are terrible disasters and tragedies and miseries all over the place, in places like Africa with the atrocities in Darfur, India until recently, and China. So many of them have been brought to our notice by television that we’ve almost become inured to cruelty and disasters and hopelessness in the world. We don’t seem to have made an awfully good job of running things as a sort of planetary cabinet.
AFG: Or do you think it’s that people have given up on trying to influence their own governments and that’s why we don’t have any great leaders?
CD: Yes, I think part of it is that we’ve lost faith in the honour or honourability of our leaders. We read so much about incompetence and corruption in all sorts of places. I’m not just thinking of the United Kingdom and the United States. Almost everywhere there seems to me to be an increase in incompetence and general dishonesty. This is what I mean about democracy—you feel that you’ve got the ability to arrange things and influence matters and it’s not quite so easy as that, I’m afraid.
AFG: You’re absolutely right. It’s very unfortunate. So why did you kill off Inspector Morse?
CD: I didn’t kill him. He died of natural causes. He died simply because he’d drunk far too much and his liver was in a pretty terrible state, he smoked far too many cigarettes and his lungs were none too good, and he took virtually no exercise. I think it was in the cards very early on that he was not going to live long at all.
AFG: I know, but Agatha Christie kept Poirot alive until he was well over one hundred!
CD: Well, yes indeed. But she got fed up with him for a bit, didn’t she? She went on to Miss Marple and two younger people. I didn’t get fed up with Morse, but I felt that everything was getting a little bit clichéd, that things lacked freshness. If I wanted to show that Morse was mean, I had to exemplify this with yet another little episode about [him] being with Lewis in a pub just after opening time and finding he’s forgotten or mislaid his wallet. I felt it had lost its freshness. Not that I wish to be equated in any way with Conan Doyle, but I think he felt the same. He felt that he’d said enough about the relationship between Holmes and Watson and he killed him off. Then, of course, he resurrected him. But I think, certainly, that Conan Doyle did not write too well after he’d brought Holmes back from the Reichenbach Falls. I just felt that I was getting older, and I don’t think many people get better as writers when they get older. Certainly I was feeling a little tired and had a fairly busy life, but probably above all I felt I was running out of potential ideas. I’m not like Christie at all. How many did she write? Eighty-five? Extraordinary woman. I’m a huge admirer of her intuitive ability to concoct plots. I think she’s the greatest of all of us in that respect. Not that she was a great writer—although she was a much better writer than most people are prepared to admit—but certainly she was the brightest in the firmament in terms of imaginative skill.
AFG: Well, it’s become sort of in vogue nowadays to say that she was not a very good writer, so it’s nice to hear that you say this because I still like her books.
CD: Yes, I think that after the mid-fifties when everybody was translating her, everybody was reading her, she was in every airport, and so on, she was under huge pressure to write more and to write quickly. I do think that some of Agatha Christie’s books are pretty dismal because all you get is Poirot coming along and interviewing A, B, C, D, then later on interviewing M, N, O. There’s no development at all. Whereas in some of the earlier stories—you mentioned things like Ten Little Indians or ABC Murders or The Murder of Roger Ackroyd—you’ve got development of the whodunit aspects. I think she had some wonderful ideas. And she could write English well. Certainly her autobiography was very well written. But I didn’t mind at all that whenever Poirot went on holiday and was in a hotel, there was going to be a murder committed. I was perfectly happy to accept that. I think one has to accept the Upstairs/Downstairs concept in her stories, as well—with servants and local vicars and the sort of general ethos of village life. But I suppose many people nowadays—probably here more so than in America—think that we ought to have murders committed in basement flats in Rotherham or places like that instead of mysteries where the butler comes in and says, “What is it tonight My Lord?” You have to accept that, don’t you, with Christie? And accept it gladly.
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