Colin Dexter Analysis
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 church tower, which the police think was accidental, was murder. The way Dexter introduces the clues of this ecclesiastical murder mystery is similar to the techniques used in traditional puzzle-solving mysteries, but the way he scrambles the clues once they seem to mesh is modern. Modern, too, are the lives of the vicar’s congregation, which exhibit the mixture of unholy lusts and disreputable desires of characters in American hard-boiled mysteries. During Morse’s investigations the number of unexplained deaths increases before he is able to “serve” all these dead persons by finally fitting all the pieces together to complete the true picture of what happened.
The Dead of Jericho
The Dead of Jericho (1981), which won for Dexter his second Silver Dagger Award and which fans voted their favorite Morse story, focuses on Anne Scott, a woman Inspector Morse meets at a party. She later appears to have hanged herself in Jericho, a lower-middle-class section of Oxford. At the inquest, the jury brings back a verdict of death by suicide, but Morse cannot accept this. His subsequent investigations lead him to his usual early wrong conclusions, while he tries to untangle the very messy former life of this beautiful but enigmatic woman, to whom Morse was attracted, and whom, he feels, he might have saved.
The Wench Is Dead
The Wench Is Dead (1989), the eighth novel in the series, won the Gold Dagger Award for the best mystery of the year. The title comes from Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta (pr. c. 1589): “Thou hast committed—/Fornication; but that was in another country,/ And besides, the wench is dead.” For Dexter, the past is this other country, and this novel is unusual in that it centers on a murder that occurred in 1859. Inspector Morse comes across the case during his stay in Oxford’s Radcliffe Hospital while he recuperates from a stomach hemorrhage and an enlarged liver. In a hospital library book, he learns of the murder of Joanna Franks, a young woman whose body was found floating in the Oxford Canal, but he becomes convinced that the two men hanged for the murder were innocent. With the help of the hospital librarian and Sergeant Lewis, he begins to collect the pieces of the puzzle, but he is unable to put them together until he is discharged from the hospital. He discovers the solution, of which he is 99 percent certain, through an anagram.
The Way Through the Woods
The Way Through the Woods (1992), which won for Dexter his second Gold Dagger Award, is the tenth novel in the series. Inspector Morse’s interest is piqued when a young woman disappears and he believes that she has been murdered, but when a year later she turns up neither alive nor dead, the case remains unsolved. Then the police receive an anonymous letter with a puzzling poem that the writer claims provides the solution to the young woman’s disappearance. The police publish the letter and poem, which Morse reads while he is on vacation in Dorset. After some surprising twists in the plot, Morse solves the poem’s riddle, and the persons responsible for the crime are taken into custody by the Thames Valley police. Incidentally, in his letter of thanks to The Times, Morse reveals the first initial, E, of his first name, which remains unknown to the reader.
The Remorseful Day
Dexter culminates his series in The Remorseful Day (1999) with Inspector Morse’s unofficial investigation of the death of a local nurse, Yvonne Harrison, with whom he was once romantically involved. The case has baffled the police for two years, and Morse, even after new evidence surfaces, refuses to lead the reinvestigation of the crime, but he does collect clues on his own, which puzzles Sergeant Lewis. Morse, who is in failing health, also has to contend with the criticisms of Lewis and Chief Superintendent Strange. Morse eventually discovers the truth, which proves to be disturbing to all those involved.
Following the making of his will, in which Morse leaves his body to medical research and his property to Lewis and the British Diabetes Association, Morse’s “confession” of what was good and bad about his life brings him a kind of personal redemption, and his death brings the series to an emotionally moving end.