Colin Dexter Essay - Critical Essays


Colin Dexter once described the essential nature of his Inspector Morse novels, which represent the core of his literary achievement, as “the exploitation of reader-mystification.” By this he meant that the novels incorporate both traditional and modern elements. The Morse novels are in the puzzle-solving tradition, and Morse is the agent in restoring reason and order after a crime has created chaos. Dexter also observes Father Ronald Knox’s ten commandments for writing detective fiction. Knox, who was the Roman Catholic chaplain at Oxford University, issued in 1929 a list of such rules as “No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.” Indeed, Morse often has intuitions that turn out to be wrong. However, Morse is a modern detective not only in his mode of transportation, a Lancia or a red Jaguar, but also in his reliance of the unconscious to do a lot of his work. As Dexter states in The Daughters of Cain (1994), Morse would toss clues into “the magnetic field of his mind,” trusting that the explanation for the crime would “suddenly appear under his nose.”

Last Bus to Woodstock

The mixture of the traditional and modern can be seen in Dexter’s first Inspector Morse novel, Last Bus to Woodstock, in which the inspector tries to discover the murderer of Sylvia Kaye, a provocatively clad young woman who was found bludgeoned to death outside a pub in Woodstock, a small town about eight miles northwest of Oxford. Morse customarily began his cases with a surfeit of confidence, and he is certain that he can solve this murder if he can find and interview the young woman who was seen hitching a ride with Sylvia on that fateful September evening. However, when he finally gets to talk with this woman, she does not tell him what he wants to know. In addition, neither her girlfriends nor her other “Oxford playmates” provide the information he seeks. Indeed, he is frustrated by their withholding of facts and feelings. He settles on the wrong person as the murderer before a husband and wife, each of whom confessed to the murder, are murdered themselves. This tragedy leads the way to the resolution and the identification of the woman murderer, who claims to be in love with Morse. In this novel Dexter makes use of red herrings, which were a staple of traditional puzzle-solving mysteries, but his early misidentification of the culprit and the sexual themes make it modern.

Service of All the Dead

Service of All the Dead (1979), which won for Dexter his first Silver Dagger Award, is the fourth in the series, and it centers on the murders of a churchwarden and a vicar. Inspector Morse postpones a vacation to Greece to investigate the seemingly senseless killing of a churchwarden, which the Oxford police have been unable to solve. Furthermore, Morse believes the death of the vicar in a fall from a...

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