Colin Dexter, the author behind detective Inspector Morse and his adventures solving mysteries in Oxfordshire, has died at the age of 86, with the top names in crime writing lining up to pay tribute to a “a kind, generous man”.
Dexter’s death at his home in Oxford was announced by his publisher Macmillan on Tuesday. Val McDermid, who was a good friend of Dexter, described him as “a lovely, lovely man” and not as grumpy as his creation – “though he did share Morse’s love of music”.
“Early on in my career I told him I was nervous about how to write police procedurals and he said, ‘Well, my dear, I had written five Morse novels before I had even set foot in a police station.’ He had great sense of humour,” McDermid told the Guardian.
Author Lee Child described Dexter as “revolutionary”. “He wrote a character without any concessions at all to likely popularity – Morse was bad tempered, cantankerous, esoteric and abstruse – and thereby showed us that integrity and authenticity work best,” Child said. “His literary descendants are everywhere. When our genre’s family tree is drawn, he’s the root of a huge portion of it.”
Author Peter James said “all of us who love crime fiction owe Colin Dexter a very great debt”.
“There are few writers of whom it can be genuinely said that they changed – or indeed created – a genre. But Colin Dexter did. Morse was unique, both in the pages of the novels and in the subsequent television adaptations,” James said. “In many ways he mirrored characteristics of Sherlock Holmes, with his fierce brain and quiet nature, and. like Holmes, he came off the page and stepped out of our screens to become a living person, someone any of us could imagine meeting for a drink in a pub.”
Dexter’s 13 Morse novels, which were written between 1975 and 1999, sold millions, and were adapted into a hugely popular television series starring John Thaw as the detective. Dexter’s writing also spawned spin-off TV shows, Lewis – following Morse’s longtime companion – and Endeavour, about Morse’s early days on the police force.
Actor Sheila Hancock, who was married to Thaw until his death in 2002 and played a guest role in Endeavour, called Dexter “a sweet, gentle, erudite man”.
“Colin seemed to thoroughly enjoy being involved in the programme, making Hitchcock-like appearances and hanging out with the cast and crew,” she said. “I think he was deeply fond of both Kevin [Whately] and John. As they were of him.”
Born Norman Colin Dexter in Lincolnshire in 1930, Dexter began his writing career by writing text books while working in education. After retiring from a 13-year teaching career due to deafness, he decided to write a crime novel while on a rainy holiday in Wales with his family in 1972. Bored with the novel he was reading, Dexter decided he could do better.
His debut, Last Bus to Woodstock, arrived on shelves in 1975. It was a sleeper hit, but the series eventually took off, in part due to his main character Inspector Morse, a curmudgeonly detective who liked ale, crosswords and Wagner – sharing many of his creator’s interests. “He’d no time for reports,” Dexter wrote of Morse, in Last Bus to Woodstock. “He suspected that about 95% of the written word was never read by anyone anyway.”
Dexter killed off his famous detective in 1999’s The Remorseful Day, to great sadness among his fans worldwide. In an interview in 2000, he told the Guardian: “I started with him 27 years ago, and I miss the old boy more than most people. I get lots of letters saying, ‘It’s terribly sad’; ‘You’re terribly cruel’; ‘Why did you do it?’”
In 2000, Dexter was given an OBE for services to literature and in 2001, was awarded freedom of the city in Oxford, where all his Morse stories were set. He also won four CWA Dagger awards, as well as the Diamond Dagger – the highest honour in British crime writing – and the Theakston’s Old Peculier outstanding contribution to crime fiction.
Dexter refused to write a memoir, and would not allow anyone else to write a biography while he was still alive. “I’ve had such a lot of luck, I don’t want to risk having someone ridiculously ill-informed doing it,” he told the Guardian. “I think it should wait till you are dead. And when you’re dead, everyone forgets you anyway, if you write crime fiction.”
“Colin was an author who inspired all those who worked with him,” said Maria Rejt, his most recent editor. “His loyalty, modesty and self-deprecating humour gave joy to many. His was the sharpest mind and the biggest heart, and his wonderful novels and stories will remain a testament to both.”
Norman Colin DexterOBE (29 September 1930 – 21 March 2017) was an English crime writer known for his Inspector Morse series of novels, which were written between 1975 and 1999 and adapted as an ITV television series, Inspector Morse, from 1987 to 2000. His characters have spawned a sequel series, Lewis, and a prequel series, Endeavour.
Early life and career
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, a boys' public school, where one of his contemporaries was the England international cricket captain and England international rugby player M. J. K. Smith.
After leaving school, Dexter completed his national service with the Royal Corps of Signals and then read Classics at Christ's College, Cambridge, graduating in 1953 and receiving a master's degree in 1958.
In 1954, Dexter began his teaching career in the East Midlands, becoming assistant Classics master at Wyggeston School, Leicester. There he helped the Christian Union school society. However, in 2000 he stated that he shared the same views on politics and religion as Inspector Morse, who was portrayed in the final Morse novel, The Remorseful Day, as an atheist.
A post at Loughborough Grammar School followed in 1957 before he took up the position of senior Classics teacher at Corby Grammar School, Northamptonshire, in 1959. In 1956 he married Dorothy Cooper, and they had a daughter, Sally, and a son, Jeremy. In 1966, he was forced by the onset of deafness to retire from teaching and took up the post of senior assistant secretary at the University of Oxford Delegacy of Local Examinations (UODLE) in Oxford, a job he held until his retirement in 1988.
In November 2008, Dexter featured prominently in the BBC programme "How to Solve a Cryptic Crossword" as part of the Time Shift series, in which he recounted some of the crossword clues solved by Morse.
The initial books written by Dexter were general studies text books. He began writing mysteries in 1972 during a family holiday. Last Bus to Woodstock was published in 1975 and introduced the character of Inspector Morse, the irascible detective whose penchants for cryptic crosswords, English literature, cask ale, and Wagner reflect Dexter's own enthusiasms. Dexter's plots used false leads and other red herrings.
The success of the 33 two-hour episodes of the ITV television series Inspector Morse, produced between 1987 and 2000, brought further attention to Dexter's writings. In the manner of Alfred Hitchcock, he also made a cameo appearance in almost all episodes. From 2006 to 2016, Morse's assistant Robbie Lewis featured in a 33-episode ITV series titled Lewis (Inspector Lewis in the United States). A prequel series, Endeavour, featuring a young Morse and starring Shaun Evans and Roger Allam, began airing on the ITV network in 2012. Dexter was a consultant. As with Morse, Dexter occasionally made cameo appearances in Lewis and Endeavour.
Awards and honours
Dexter received several Crime Writers' Association awards: two Silver Daggers for Service of All the Dead in 1979 and The Dead of Jericho in 1981; two Gold Daggers for The Wench is Dead in 1989 and The Way Through the Woods in 1992; and a Cartier Diamond Dagger for lifetime achievement in 1997. In 1996, Dexter received a Macavity Award for his short story Evans Tries an O-Level. In 1980, he was elected a member of the by-invitation-only Detection Club. In 2005 Dexter became a Fellow by Special Election of St Cross College, Oxford.
In 2000 Dexter was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire for services to literature. In 2001 he was awarded the Freedom of the City of Oxford. In September 2011, the University of Lincoln awarded Dexter an honorary Doctor of Letters degree.
On 21 March 2017 Dexter's publisher, Macmillan, said in a statement "With immense sadness, Macmillan announces the death of Colin Dexter who died peacefully at his home in Oxford this morning."
Inspector Morse novels
- Last Bus to Woodstock (1975)
- Last Seen Wearing (1976)
- The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn (1977)
- Service of All the Dead (1979)
- The Dead of Jericho (1981)
- The Riddle of the Third Mile (1983)
- The Secret of Annexe 3 (1986)
- The Wench is Dead (1989)
- The Jewel That Was Ours (1991)
- The Way Through the Woods (1992)
- The Daughters of Cain (1994)
- Death is Now My Neighbour (1996)
- The Remorseful Day (1999)
Novellas and short story collections
- The Inside Story (1993)
- Neighbourhood Watch (1993)
- Morse's Greatest Mystery (1993); also published as As Good as Gold
- "As Good as Gold" (Morse)
- "Morse's Greatest Mystery" (Morse)
- "Evans Tries an O-Level"
- "Dead as a Dodo" (Morse)
- "At the Lulu-Bar Motel"
- "Neighbourhood Watch" (Morse)
- "A Case of Mis-Identity" (a Sherlock Holmes pastiche)
- "The Inside Story" (Morse)
- "Monty's Revolver"
- "The Carpet-Bagger"
- "Last Call" (Morse)
Uncollected short stories
- "The Burglar" in You, The Mail on Sunday (1994)
- "The Double Crossing" in Mysterious Pleasures (2003)
- "Between the Lines" in The Detection Collection (2005)
- "The Case of the Curious Quorum" (featuring Inspector Lewis) in The Verdict of Us All (2006)
- "The Other Half" in The Strand Magazine (February–May 2007)
- "Morse and the Mystery of the Drunken Driver" in Daily Mail (December 2008)
- "Clued Up" (a 4-page story featuring Lewis and Morse solving a crossword) in Cracking Cryptic Crosswords (2009)
- Cracking Cryptic Crosswords: A Guide to Solving Cryptic Crosswords (2010)
- Foreword to Oxford: A Cultural and Literary History (2007)
- Foreword to Oxford Through the Lens (2016)