Colin Dexter’s major accomplishment was his creation of the unforgettable Inspector Morse. The novels of the Morse series have made Dexter an important and influential figure in modern English detective fiction. In a poll, Dexter’s fellow mystery writers chose Morse as their favorite male sleuth, ahead of Sherlock Holmes, Philip Marlowe, Nero Wolfe, and Adam Dalgliesh. Others have compared Dexter to Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler because he has written not only good detective stories but also high-quality literature. The novels of the Morse series have brought Dexter fame, fortune, and fans around the world, some of whom travel to Oxford to meet him and to relive their favorite scenes from the novels. The Crime Writers’ Association has awarded him its Silver Dagger Award twice (1979 and 1981) and its Gold Dagger Award twice (1989 and 1992). He has also received this organization’s Cartier Diamond Dagger for outstanding services to crime fiction.
Morse made his first appearance in Last Bus to Woodstock (1975), a novel that introduced several of Dexter’s principal techniques and themes, such as insightfully choosing epigraphs relevant to each chapter’s subject and mood. Readers also encounter the theme of Morse’s fallibility, because he often misidentifies the murderer in the early stages of his investigations. Dexter also uses Morse’s companion, Sergeant Lewis, to update this relationship between detective and associate that began with Sherlock Holmes and John Watson. Like Holmes, Morse is an eccentric bachelor, but he is unlike Holmes in his passion for good English grammar, satisfying food and drink, and intelligent, attractive older women. Like Watson, Sergeant Lewis is less intelligent than the master sleuth, but the Morse-Lewis relationship tends to be more acrimonious than that of Doyle’s pair. Unlike the traditional puzzle-solving detective, Morse rarely discovers clues in a straightforward fashion. They are scrambled, and he manages to use them in specious but false explanations, so that when the reader finally learns the truth, it is usually a surprise.
As the series evolved, so, too, did Morse, whose interests in poetry and modern literature are explored. In The Wench Is Dead (1989), which some critics have praised as the best novel in the series, Morse’s physical and moral weaknesses are on display. Immobilized with a severe illness in a hospital, the cantankerous Morse is nevertheless able to solve a dead case from the Victorian period. By 1999, with The Remorseful Day, which Dexter insisted was “the final Inspector Morse novel,” the author told interviewers that he had said all that he wanted to say about this character, and unlike Doyle and Holmes, there would be no resurrections. Dexter’s reputation was further enhanced by the success of the Inspector Morse series on British television between 1987 and 2000. Dexter himself, à la Alfred Hitchcock, made cameo appearances in several of the episodes.
Dexter, Colin. “The Man Behind Inspector Morse.” Interview by David Brown. Christian Science Monitor 89 (April 2, 1997): 15. This transcript of a radio interview conducted in Boston deals with the personal background to the novels, an analysis by Dexter of Morse’s character, and his explanation of why the novels and the television series have been so successful.
Edmonds, Joanne. “Creation, Adaptation, and Re-Creation: The Lives of Colin Dexter’s Characters.” In It’s a Print! Detective Fiction from Page to Screen, edited by William Reynolds. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1994. Some critics have complained about the omissions and distortions in the television versions of Dexter’s Inspector Morse novels, and this article analyzes what is lost and gained when his characters appear in the new medium.
Heinz, Drue, et al. “Criminal Conversations.” The Paris Review 44 (Winter, 2002-2003): 178. This is the fifth in a series of conversations with well-known writers to be published by The Paris Review. It is an edited version of discussions on the subject of crime writing held at a villa on Lake Como in Italy, and Dexter was very much a part of this seminar.
Karnick, S. T. “Detective and Mystery Stories.” American Spectator 33 (December, 2000/January, 2001): 40-55. In this article, Dexter’s first Inspector Morse novel is compared with Edward D. Hoch’s “The Problem of the Covered Bridge” and Tony Hillerman’s Skinwalkers (1986). These, and other examples Karnick analyzes, are seen as representatives of how new authors have breathed life into the moribund puzzle-solving mystery.
May, Radmila. “Murder Most Oxford.” Contemporary Review 277 (October, 2000): 232-239. This article seeks to answer the question of why the Oxford setting has proved so important and beneficial in the novels of the Inspector Morse series and in the novels of other authors. May tries to show how both the real and mythical Oxford informed these stories.