Norman Colin Dexter, who died at home this morning at the age of 86 according to his publishers, created an enduring legacy with his Inspector Morse novels, which have become international bestsellers and form the basis for three TV series; Inspector Morse, which was based, for the most part, on the books; Lewis, which featured the escapades of Morse’s dogged Detective Sergeant as he becomes an Inspector and takes on his own caseload; and finally Endeavour, which showcased Morse’s early life as a Police Constable.
Dexter was heavily involved in the creation of these shows, and alongside his writing and advising roles he also made a number of notable cameos in the shows in a Hitchcockian manner, inserting himself into often mundane scenes.
A classicist by nature, Dexter was born and raised in Stamford, Lincolnshire, and prior to his writing career he was a classics teacher for many years. Despite living in Oxford and working at the University in later life, as well as setting his award winning novels in the city, Dexter actually attended Christ’s College, Cambridge. After struggling with his teaching posts due to his encroaching deafness (which he later wove into the plot of the novel The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn) Dexter took up the post of senior assistant secretary at the University of Oxford Delegacy of Local Examinations, a post he held for many years until retiring, by which point he was already a renowned writer.
A crossword devotee and fan of poet A. E. Houseman, Dexter was renowned for his fanatical attention to detail and dedication to the English language, and as such he created a detective who mirrored this image; Morse was a grammatical snob who regularly quoted the likes of Houseman and Larkin, as well as being a classicist himself (albeit one who never actually obtained his degree). Similar to his creator Morse could not abide social snobbery, and indeed Dexter himself, despite amassing a fortune through the sale of his novels, remained living in the same house in Oxford throughout this period of his life, and was known to live simply despite his penchant for fine alcohol and classic cars (again similar to Morse, who drove a Jaguar Mark 2).
Every aspect of his books reflected Dexter’s passions; his key protagonists, Detective Chief Inspector Morse and Detective Sergeant Lewis, were named after crossword buffs (Sir Jeremy Morse and Mrs. B Lewis respectively), and Morse’s first name was just another clue to be solved for many years, with fans initially not being told, then it emerging that it began with an E, before finally, in one fell swoop, the full name was revealed to be Endeavour, after Captain Cook’s ship, owing to the character’s parents being Quakers.
Writing at a time when novels, and Crime Fiction in particular, were comparatively staid and formulaic, Dexter both broke and embraced the mould, creating a cerebral detective who was both very much of his time and distinctly out of it. At a time when writers such as Ian Rankin were developing hard hitting, tough talking dropouts who won based on their flare for the dramatic and ability to be knocking down the right door at the right time, Dexter developed an introverted gentleman with failed ambitions and deep passions who stood out from the crowd whilst, through predicable narratives (although highly unpredictable, and often deeply confusing, plots) adhering to the Golden Age tropes which define Crime Fiction as a genre.
Alongside numerous Crime Writers’ Association awards, he also received an OBE in 2000 and was appointed an honorary Doctor of Letters by the University of Lincoln. All these awards paled in comparison, however, to the devotion of the legions of fans that read and admired his work, and his legacy lives on in the form of 13 full length Morse novels and a legion of short stories.