Sunday 17 December 2017

Obituary: Colin Dexter

Classics master turned novelist whose tetchy Inspector Morse delighted millions
PARTNERS IN CRIME: Actors John Thaw, left, and Kevin Whately, right, joking with author Colin Dexter Picture: PA
PARTNERS IN CRIME: Actors John Thaw, left, and Kevin Whately, right, joking with author Colin Dexter Picture: PA

Colin Dexter, who died on Tuesday aged 86, created the cerebral, Oxford-based policeman Inspector Morse, one of the best-loved characters in English detective fiction.

In 14 novels written by Dexter - as well as in more than 30 sumptuous adaptations for television with John Thaw in the title role - Morse out-thought every murderer he encountered. However fiendish or wily the perpetrator of a crime, the ungracious inspector - mean with his money, thoughtless to his staff - was always his equal.

Morse was probably the most physically inactive fictional detective since Hercule Poirot. He disdained the rough stuff; house-to-house inquiries were punctuated by visits to the pub; and he had no time for anything so vulgar as a high-speed car chase.

In all this - as in his tastes for real ale, crossword puzzles, the classics and classical music - Morse was relentlessly old-fashioned. He was also high-principled. But he was saved from priggishness by his bluff honesty, and by his occasional crises of self-confidence - he always got his man in the end, but not without first enduring some exquisite mental tortures.

There are those who doubt that Colin Dexter's books would have achieved quite the same success were it not for the television series which derived from them; and certainly the performances of Thaw as Morse, and Kevin Whately as Sergeant Lewis, were superb (Whately later went on to star in a successful post-Morse spin-off series, Lewis, also set in Oxford).

But the question is academic, and Dexter always acknowledged the brilliance of the television programmes. He did, however, once complain: "I had quite a bit of success before. I had won two Silver Dagger Awards, and that was why they wanted to put the stories on television. There have been some writers whose work has been put on TV, and the effect has been the opposite."

In fact, it was probably Dexter's choice of location that was truly inspired. The classic British detective story is informed by the device of an ordered, predictable world that is destabilised by the act of murder. Oxford - with its familiar beauty and aura of tradition and continuity - is a powerful paradigm of that world.

Dexter began his first Morse book, Last Bus to Woodstock, on a whim while he and his family were on holiday in North Wales. The principal characters, Morse and Lewis, were named after the banker Sir Jeremy Morse and a Mrs B Lewis, both regular and successful entrants in the crossword competitions which Dexter also entered.

Norman Colin Dexter, the son of a taxi driver, was born in Stamford, Lincolnshire, on September 29, 1930. Having won a scholarship to Stamford School, he went on to Christ's College, Cambridge, where he took a degree in Classics. After completing his National Service, he became a classics master in the Midlands, teaching Latin and Greek at grammar schools in Loughborough, Leicester and Corby.

It was at Corby that his deafness, which had been getting worse for some years, forced him to abandon his teaching career. Dexter was soon offered another job, as senior assistant secretary at the University of Oxford Delegacy of Local Examinations. In this role he ran the English and Classics syllabuses for Oxford's examination board from 1966 until 1987, when he retired to concentrate on his writing.

His two Silver Dagger Awards were for Service of All the Dead (1979) and The Dead of Jericho (1981); he won the Gold Dagger Award for The Wench is Dead (1989) and The Way Through the Woods (1992). He also won the Cartier Diamond Dagger Award for services to crime fiction in 1997, and the Sherlock Holmes Award in 1999.

The television adaptations began in 1987, and at their peak in the early 1990s attracted some 18m viewers. They have also been sold to some 40 countries.

After nearly 25 years and 13 novels featuring some 80 corpses, Dexter had tired of his hero, and in 1999, to a tremendous fanfare of publicity, he killed off Inspector Morse in his last book, The Remorseful Day. True to form, Morse did not perish in hot pursuit of a villain, but in a hospital bed, from cardiac arrest brought on by his inattention to his diabetic condition.

Colin Dexter was appointed OBE in 2000, and in 2009 was elected to the Crime Writers' Association's Hall of Fame.

He and his wife continued to live in the semi-detached house in North Oxford which had been their home since the 1960s; they never replaced their car until it began to disintegrate; and were perfectly happy, when they took a holiday, to book places on a coach tour. Dexter's only extravagances were wine and beer and collecting first editions of A E Housman.

Once asked to describe himself, Dexter wrote: "Short, fat, bald, deaf; a lukewarm socialist; a Low Church atheist; a lover of crosswords, Wagner, cask-conditioned beer and the scholar-poet AE Housman; a hater of American musicals, Australian cricketers, litter and the political prejudices of Sir Peregrine Worsthorne."

Some of these characteristics were, of course, equally applicable to Inspector Morse. But Dexter was unlike his fictional creation in that he was excellent company.

He married his wife Dorothy (nee Cooper), a physiotherapist, in 1956; she survives him with their son and daughter.

©Telegraph

Telegraph.co.uk

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