When Colin Dexter died in March, the world paid tribute to the creator of Endeavour Morse, one of the most popular fictional detectives of the past half-century.
The contribution of the Oxford setting to the success of Dexter’s novels, and the TV series they spawned (Inspector Morse, Lewis, and Endeavour) was widely recognised. The dreaming spires offer a visual feast, and their appearance in the books and screenplays – even in stories where the body count is alarmingly high- has boosted the city’s tourist trade for decades. But Oxford did much more than merely supplying an attractive backdrop for Dexter’s entertainments. Oxford’s ethos of intellectual rigour is woven into the fabric of the stories, and guided Dexter in changing the direction of the crime genre.
Colin Dexter was born in 1930, in the middle of what is now known as “the Golden Age of detective fiction”, that period between the two wars when ingenious whodunits were enormously popular. Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers were the two most famous authors of that era, but their peers included Oxford dons such as Michael Innes (J.I.M.Stewart) and J.C. Masterman, while countless “Great Detectives” of the time benefited from an Oxford education.
Dexter himself studied classics at Christ’s College, Cambridge, and taught in Leicester until hearing problems caused him to abandon teaching in 1966 and move to Oxford. He worked for the University Examination Board, and remained in the city for the rest of his life. His first books were non-fiction, and, as he said in Mark Sanderson’s The Making of Inspector Morse, “intended to show students how to get into Oxbridge...When you’re asked what you think of freedom or democracy you need to be on nodding terms with great men like Marx and Hegel”. In 1972, he turned his hand to writing a detective novel to beguile a rain-sodden holiday in Wales.
At just the same time, the leading British crime fiction critic, Julian Symons, published Bloody Murder, a highly influential history of the genre. The book’s sub-title, From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel, spoke for itself. Symons praised some Golden Age mysteries – including Christie’s – but believed it was time to bury the cerebral puzzle story, old-fashioned and sterile as it seemed: “Some detective stories will continue to be written,” Symons prophesied, “but as the old masters and mistresses fade away, fewer and fewer of them will be pleasing to lovers of the Golden Age.”
Colin Dexter's Morse books on sale in Blackwells, Oxford
Dexter’s story introduced Morse and Sergeant Lewis, and had a contemporary setting, but in essence represented a defiant return to the values of Golden Age detective fiction. If realism got in the way of plot and story, Dexter had no qualms about sacrificing it, just as Christie and Sayers had. Setting the book in Oxford was not a matter of window-dressing, but rather a way of infusing the narrative with an atmosphere of intellectualism. His aim was entertainment, not instruction, but his elaborately contrived story was conspicuously the product of a man with an academic mind.
Morse was erratic (“I never did understand the legal situation over search warrants”) but brilliant, and very much a Great Detective in the tradition of Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot. Golden Age tropes – a coded message in a letter; a detective who solves crossword puzzles; a “least likely person” as culprit –abound. In terms of intellectual snobbery, Morse was a match for Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey. Considering a note written by a dead woman, he says, “I don’t think much of her English style. She uses far too many dashes for my liking.” And while Lord Peter was a Balliol man, Morse had studied at St John’s College, before leaving without a degree in the wake of one of his many doomed love affairs. Like Sherlock, he was destined to remain a bachelor.
Gates in the real St John's College, Oxford.
Dexter was swimming against the tide, and his manuscript was rejected by Collins Crime Club prior to being published by Macmillan in 1975. He’d called it, with a cheerful disregard for geographical pedantry, Ten Miles to Woodstock, but Macmillan insisted on calling it Last Bus to Woodstock – even though the bus in question is not, in fact, the last of the day. Critical response was muted. Even novelist and reviewer Edmund Crispin, himself a St John’s man, and creator of the sleuthing don Professor Gervase Fen, expressed reservations about Dexter’s “mandarin” style. Dexter often recalled this remark in later years, saying, “I’m still pretending that this fine word was meant to be complimentary”.
Sales were modest. I can remember, as a student, seeing the book (“Local author’s crime novel”) on display in Blackwell’s Paperback Shop in Broad Street, but nobody except me seemed interested in it. Dexter simply wasn’t trendy. But he kept going, and stuck to his principles. His fourth book, Service of all the Dead (1979) benefited from an intricate plot which depends on a plot device often favoured by Golden Age writers (to say more would be a spoiler). It earned the Crime Writers’ Association’s Silver Dagger, and introduced Dexter’s work to a wider readership. He was elected to the prestigious Detection Club (whose President, ironically, was Julian Symons) the following year, but fame and fortune only came when Inspector Morse arrived on television screens in 1987. A decade later, Dexter received the crime genre’s highest award, the CWA Diamond Dagger for a career of sustained achievement. Taking Oxford as his inspiration, he had breathed new life into the classic detective story, and paved the way for its triumphant revival.
Inspector Morse merchandise
In truth, crime fiction is a very broad church, encompassing everything from gruesome examples of Nordic Noir to the lightest of “cosy” mysteries. Dexter’s success encouraged a new generation of crime novelists, including me, to adapt Golden Age traditions for the modern age. And the success of so many books in this vein has more recently led to the rediscovery of many long-forgotten books from the Twenties and Thirties, notably in the best-selling series of Crime Classics published by the British Library. Thanks to Colin Dexter’s influence, and the Oxford ethos which permeates his novels and the TV spin-offs, today’s crime fans can enjoy the best of the past as well as the present.
Martin Edwards is Chair of the Crime Writers’ Association, President of the Detection Club, and author of eighteen novels, as well as The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books (British Library).