Crime writer who created the deep-thinking Oxford detective Inspector Morse
Tuesday 21 March 2017
Though he thought of himself primarily as a school teacher, Colin Dexter will be remembered as the crime writer who created the curmudgeonly but entertaining Inspector Morse. Morse, the beer, crossword and Wagner-loving detective who drives a vintage Jaguar around Oxford, solves murders by deep thinking, often about chance remarks made by his sidekick, Sergeant Lewis.
Dexter, who has died aged 86, claimed that he was no writer, but could revise his “bad starts” into something that worked. The formula was certainly a success for some dozen Morse novels and many original scripts for television, the medium that delivered the doings of the idiosyncratic Morse to an audience across 50 countries. “I just started writing and forced myself to keep going,” he said. “And it’s been the same ever since.”
Intellectually rather like Morse, Dexter was a master of the literary high wire. Morse’s first name was kept under wraps for years, always presenting audiences with a riddle to be solved – a riddle almost as interesting as the one about why Morse, though presented as constantly falling in love with women, never married one.
Only gradually was it leaked out that his first name began with an E. But the secret about his first name – in real life it would have appeared on documents easily accessible at the police station – was not dispelled until 1996, when there was a landslide of useful publicity about the disclosure that the name was not Edward, nor Ernest, or even Enoch, as some pundits had speculated, but Endeavour – because Morse’s parents had been Quakers who greatly admired Captain Cook, whose ship bore that name.
Dexter happily went along with publicity strategies to boost Morse because he felt he owed a debt of gratitude to his publishers but, like Morse, he hated cant and pretentiousness. He made millions out of Morse but lived in the same four-bedroomed house in Oxford that he had occupied since moving to the city in 1966.
He was neither impressed by displays of wealth nor anxious to live up to his income, his main sybaritic expenditure being on red wine, Flowers beer, whisky and his car. The last of these was as elderly as Morse’s, but of a lesser make. The one extravagance to which Dexter would admit was his purchase of the first editions of the works of AE Housman. He had planned to write a book on Housman when he finished with his detective, but found by that time that other writers had cornered the market.
Dexter was born in Stamford, Lincolnshire. His father, Alfred, was a taxi driver who had left school at 12, as had Colin’s mother, Dorothy (nee Towns), and was determined that Colin and his elder brother, John, should be well educated. The boys were not required to do any domestic chores but were expected to spend every available moment studying. Both gained scholarships to the independent Stamford school, and Colin then went to Christ’s College, Cambridge, where he studied classics.
He became a classics teacher, claiming for the rest of his life that he was a born teacher rather than a writer: he took no interest in the moral welfare of his pupils but prided himelf on getting them better exam results than they thought they were capable of. He taught at schools in Loughborough and Leicester, and by his mid-30s was head of classics at a school in Corby, Northamptonshire. It was there that he discovered there was something seriously wrong with his hearing.
He was teaching The Aeneid, Book II, when he began to feel that there was something going on that he knew nothing about. In fact, pupils in the fifth form were playing pop music during his lessons at ever increasing volume, but he could not hear it. His family history might have warned him of approaching danger: all four of his grandparents, an uncle and his father became deaf.
This had the effect of making him seek a second career in which impaired hearing would not be a disadvantage. So he became a GCE examiner for the Oxford University Board. It required him to move to Oxford, and he remained there from 1966 until 1987, by which time Morse had changed his life.
The first of the Inspector Morse novels, Last Bus To Woodstock (1975), was written because, with his wife, Dorothy, and two sons, Dexter was on holiday in north Wales at a time when the rain never seemed to stop. Thoroughly miserable and bored, he read both the detective novels in their holiday accommodation, decided that they were not much good and thought he could do better. With the benefit of medieval and suburban Oxford as the setting (Dexter reckoned that he would never have become a writer had he moved to Rotherham), Last Bus to Woodstock proved the point.
The names for the characters were chosen with the same liking for intellectual riddles as the plots. He chose the name for Morse, and for all the others in the novel, except for the murderer, from a crossword, at a time when he entered regularly for the Observer Ximenes puzzle, which was won more often by Sir Jeremy Morse and a Mrs B Lewis.
Once it was obvious that he had found a winning character and setting, Dexter seriously set about writing detective novels. There were 12 more in the Morse series, including Service of All the Dead (1979), for which he won the Silver Dagger award of the Crime Writers’ Association, The Dead of Jericho (1981), another Silver Dagger-winner, The Wench is Dead (1989), for which he won the Gold Dagger, The Way Through the Woods (1992), another Gold Dagger-winner, and the last, The Remorseful Day (1999), which killed off Morse, as well as a short-story collection, Morse’s Greatest Mystery (1993).
The first of 33 episodes of the Inspector Morse television series was presented in 1987, with John Thaw as Morse and Kevin Whately as Lewis, and Dexter himself appearing in various cameos. When the novels ran out, Dexter wrote additional scripts for Morse before turning over the series to other writers. The last episode, in 2000, featured Morse’s death, and after Thaw’s death in 2002, Dexter stipulated that no other actor should reprise the role. However, the story continued in a spin-off series, Lewis (2006-15), and a prequel series, Endeavour, with Shaun Evans as the young Morse, which began in 2012.
Dexter was often asked whether he wrote for a readership or for himself. His answer was that he wrote for his old English teacher Mr Sharp. He would write a page and then ask himself, “Would Mr Sharp like that?” His aim was to feel that Mr Sharp would give it at least eight out of 10.
Dexter was appointed OBE in 2000. He is survived by Dorothy (nee Cooper), whom he married in 1956, their children Jeremy and Sally, and two grandsons, Thomas and James.
• Norman Colin Dexter, teacher and writer, born 29 September 1930; died 21 March 2017