Classic Crime

Colin Dexter

Colin Dexter was born in Stamford, Lincolnshire, to Alfred and Dorothy Dexter. He had a brother, John, a fellow classicist, who taught Classics at The King's School, Peterborough, and a sister, Avril. Alfred ran a small garage and taxi company from premises in Scotgate, Stamford. Colin was educated at St. John's Infants School, Bluecoat Junior School, from which he gained a scholarship to Stamford School.

After leaving school, Dexter completed his national service national service and then read Classics at Christ's College, Cambridge, graduating in 1953 In 1954, Dexter began his teaching career in the East Midlands, becoming assistant Classics master at Wyggeston School, Leicester, later receiving a master's degree in 1958.

The story Dexter was most famous for telling was how he came about creating Morse. He began writing mysteries during a family holiday when he read a crime novel and being very disappointed by it, thought he could do better and gave it a go.

"We were in a little guest house halfway between Caernarfon and Pwllheli. It was a Saturday and it was raining—it's not unknown for it to rain in North Wales. The children were moaning... I was sitting at the kitchen table with nothing else to do, and I wrote the first few paragraphs of a potential detective novel. This novel was to take some time to see the light of day, but ‘Last Bus to Woodstock’ was to mark the entrance of Morse. Published in 1975, it introduced Inspector Morse, the irascible detective whose penchants for cryptic crosswords, English literature, cask ale, and Wagner reflect Dexter's own enthusiasms.

John Thaw starred as Morse in 33 two-hour episodes running from 1987 to 2000. Unlike Holmes and Poirot, Morse was fallible and often arrested the wrong culprit until seeing the light. Morse is a man who likes to drink, is irascible but his love of crosswords trickles through to the real world and Morse loves to solve a good puzzle, whether in The Oxford Times or at work. His name was always Morse and when asked his first name, he would curtly respond with ‘Inspector’! His true name, Endeavour was only mentioned once after admitting his father was a fanatic about Captain James Cook and had named his son after the vessel that carried Cook to discover Australia and New Zealand.

A slight change came in the shape of Morse’s ‘Watson’ for the TV series was in turning Lewis from an elderly Welshman to a younger Geordie. Dexter, like Hitchcock, made uncredited appearances in all but three episodes. After Morse finished, two spin-off series started featuring Lewis and a prequel, ‘Endeavour’. Dexter also made cameos in both series.

Dexter received several Crime Writers Association Daggers: two Silver Daggers for ‘’Service of All the Dead’ in 1979 and ‘The Dead of Jericho’ in 1981. Dexter went on to win two Gold Daggers for ‘The Wench is Dead’ in 1989 and ‘The Way Through the Woods’ in 1992. He also received the Cartier Diamond Dagger for lifetime achievement in 1997. In 1980, he was elected a member of the Detection Club.

Colin Dexter sadly died on the 21st March 2017.

Review: The Wench is Dead

I chose ‘The Wench is Dead’ as the book to highlight this author as it was the very first Morse book I read. I was working in a bookshop while at college and numerous copies of the paperback had come in and it intrigued me. I loved it. Why? It was because Dexter made Morse so human. He was fallible. Morse never looked after himself, feeding his body a poor diet, most of which was taken in liquid form. As with all bad habits, they eventually caught up with Morse and with a burst ulcer, he finds himself in hospital.

On his first night he is situated opposite Colonel Wilfrid Deniston who passes away that same evening. It is when the Colonel’s widow visits a befuddled Morse, that she leaves as a way of gratitude a book her husband self-published on the murder of Joanna Franks, her body found in the Oxford canal on the 21st June 1859. Morse, lacking any real reading material, begins to read the Colonel’s slim chronicle of this forgotten crime. After initially critiquing the Colonel’s writing skills, Morse settles down to read the account of Joanna Franks, only for a few facts do not quite stand up to close scrutiny. It is then down to Lewis and Christine Greenaway, a librarian at the Bodleian who was visiting her father on the same ward but has now been roped in by Morse to do the leg work whilst confined to his hospital bed.

You could be forgiven for thinking this book is going to be a depressing read as most of it deals with Morse in hospital contemplating his own mortality. However, as always, Dexter injects a wonderful sense of humour to his novel, giving his reader a number of laugh-out-loud moments. Morse unexpectedly has a strange and inexplicable allure to the ladies. This is a recurring theme in all the Morse novels, and Dexter seems to be telling us that you don’t need to have a buff body and rugged looks to ‘get the girl’! Dexter leads us down a vexing path as Morse tries to uncover the truth to Franks’ inexplicable behaviour and murder over a century before. Dexter delivers his coup-de-grace for the final page. It is hardly surprising that this title won the CWA Gold Dagger award in 1989. Despite not having read it for twenty-five years, I had a vague memory of the solution and was not disappointed revisiting this book again.

Dexter had been away from crime writing for many years having despatched Morse off with a pack of Wagner’s Valkyries in 1999. The TV series is still televised with healthy viewing figures. I am certain that Morse has, and will continue to enjoy great status within the crime fiction hall of fame as one of the best detectives of all time.

Reviewed by: C.S.

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