Katherine Cowdrey in The Bookseller: Figures from across the trade have paid tribute to Colin Dexter, author of the Inspector Morse novels, who died aged 86, at his home in Oxford on Tuesday morning (21st March).
Crime critic Barry Forshaw, who wrote the introduction to a recent Macmillan edition of Morse novel The Way through the Woods, recalled how easy it was to get on Dexter’s good side.
“Sitting in his Oxford living room, I was discussing fondly-recalled details of childhood with the writer Colin Dexter,” Forshaw said. “I pointed out that he clearly cherished the blue remembered hills of his youth, and Colin beamed and exclaimed: ‘Ah! A man who knows his A. E. Housman!’ In fact, I knew from previous experience that this was a fairly easy way to gain his approval, as the author of A Shropshire Lad was one of Colin Dexter’s literary gods. Interestingly, though, one of his best-loved books featuring the dour Inspector Morse, The Way through the Woods, took its title not from the writer’s beloved Housman, but from another great English poet, Rudyard Kipling.”
He added: “Dexter’s Oxford copper is one of the defining figures in British detective fiction – a multifaceted, fascinating protagonist who readers have followed avidly through a series of beautifully turned and ingenious novels. In a line of descent that extends back to Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes (notably via the laser-sharp intellect), Inspector Morse is a character who can stand shoulder to shoulder with the very best in the genre. Interestingly, his creator shared several characteristics and traits with his hero; he was classically erudite (with a particular love of the poetry of Housman, as mentioned above), and shrewdly analytical in terms of the varied personalities he encountered. But Dexter was the polar opposite of Morse in terms of his character: extremely affable, immensely charming and humorous – and (most of all) sensitive to the feelings of those around him. An anti-Morse, in fact.”
Forshaw said that after the first Morse novel, Last Bus to Woodstock in 1975, Dexter “cannily” developed his complex and combative central character over a non-pareil series, revealing deeper aspects of his multi-faceted copper. “Simultaneously, Dexter conjured a panoramic vision of the city of Oxford in all its aspects (from council estates to the leafy groves of academe) that has few equals in literary backdrops for series characters (not even Ian Rankin’s vividly evoked Edinburgh for DI Rebus matches Dexter’s richly drawn settings). For both of these achievements – not to mention plotting of immense ingenuity and symmetry — the Morse legacy in such books as The Way Through the Woods will live as long as the crime genre itself.”
Waterstones crime buyer, Joseph Knobbs, recently turned novelist himself, hailed Dexter “one of the all-timers” and his Inspector Morse novels “timeless”.
“Colin Dexter was one of the all-timers. His real-life passion for crosswords and puzzles was well-served by the mystery genre, with works like the Silent World of Nicholas Quinn hanging on fiendishly intelligent set-ups,” said Knobbs. “This playfulness and talent for intricate plotting made his novels a joy, but it was the creation of Inspector Endeavour Morse which made them timeless. In this regard, Dexter’s influence looms larger than most, because Morse remains the standard to which we hold British detective drama series.”
He added that the prequel television show Endeavour has “bags of charm” illuminating the sad, younger years of Morse, but “occasionally it makes one hanker for those singular Dexter plots employed in the original show”.
“As to whether his books will endure, given that Dexter himself stopped writing fiction in 1999 with The Remorseful Day, and we’re still seeing new reissues and adaptations, I think his place in the history books is assured,” Knobbs said. “His place on Waterstones’ shelves certainly is.”
Fellow writers have also rushed to pay their respects. Val McDermid said she was deeply sorry to hear of the death of her “good friend” via Twitter, adding: “He brought pleasure to millions and joy to his friends”, while author Peter James said all lovers of crime fiction owed Dexter “a very great debt”.
Dexter’s publisher at Macmillan, Jeremy Trevathan, called it “a very sad day for us all” and that Dexter’s death – his writing representing “the absolute epitome of British crime writing” – would mean a “tectonic shift in the international crime writing scene”. His most recent editor, Maria Rejt, further paid tribute to Dexter as having “the sharpest mind and the biggest heart”.
Dexter’s books sold “in their millions” around the world, Pan Macmillan said.