Colin Dexter (EXCERPTS)
GO BACK TO INTERVIEWS PAGE
1972 during a rainy holiday in Wales with his family, Colin Dexter
sat in the kitchen, exasperated, after reading a boring
crime novel. He decided to try his hand at writing a
book himself and the result was
Last Bus to
This novel, which was eagerly snatched up by mystery
fans, introduced Inspector Morse—a man who fancied ale,
crosswords, English literature, and Wagner.
In many ways Morse’s interests mirror those of
his creator, yet on most levels they are worlds apart.
Mr. Dexter is hardly the curmudgeon that Morse is. He is
a very gentle and mild-mannered man who has been happily
married for the past 50 years and has two grown
A graduate of
University, Mr. Dexter was
a secondary school classics teacher before deafness put a halt to his career. He
then became Senior Assistant Secretary of the University of Oxford Delegacy of
Local Examinations, a position he held for 22 years until retiring in 1988.
In 1987, Morse was adapted for television starring John Thaw as the title
character. The series, which was
hugely popular, ran until 2001. Mr. Dexter made a cameo in every episode of the
series (a real treat for fans), and in one episode he even had a talking part.
Mr. Dexter has won several awards for his writing. In 1989 he was awarded the
Golden Dagger by the CWA for The Wench is
Dead. He won the award again in
1992 for The Way Through the Woods.
In 1997 he received the CWA’s lifetime achievement award—the Diamond Dagger—for
his body of work. And in 2000 he was awarded the Order of the
Inspector Morse appeared in thirteen novels and several short stories.
In the final novel of the series,
Remorseful Day (1999), Inspector Morse passes away from natural causes.
Sadly, unlike Sherlock Holmes’ apparent demise in “The Final Problem,”
Morse’s death is not reversible.
Mr. Dexter lives in
with his wife and spends a great deal of time doing charitable work.
AFG: So, tell
us the story about how you started to write Inspector Morse.
Well, I was on holiday with my family.
I always had to go in August because of my work.
This one August it was raining, as usual, and we were in a guest house.
If there’s anything worse than being in a guest house with your family
when it’s raining, well I don’t know!
Anyway, they all wanted to go home and we were all fed up with the rain
running down the windows. I went in
the kitchen and locked the door and I started writing.
There’d been two crime books in the guest house and I’d read one of them;
I can’t remember what it was. I
didn’t think I could do any better but I thought I could do almost as well.
I don’t know if it was the first page or the first paragraph, but
gradually a few ideas materialized.
This must have been 1972 or 1973. One of the things I learned when I studied the
classics and taught them was initium est
dimidium facti—the beginning is half of the deed.
I’ve never believed in writer’s block because my own view about beginning
to write is that you shouldn’t think you’re going to write the best first
sentence or the best first paragraph.
I used to think, I’m probably going to write the worst first sentence
ever written. Once you’ve done that
you’re there, aren’t you? Once
you’ve got something pretty terrible!
When you look back on it, it’s never quite so bad as you thought.
You can tart it up and spell a few difficult words correctly and put a
few full stops in and you’re away.
But I think, for me, it’s always been the initial business—just getting a word
down, any words down, on a blank piece of paper.
Once I’ve done that, I’m away.
Beginning is one half of the deed.
AFG: So when
you write, do you start out with an outline from chapter one to the last
chapter, or do you just start and see where the writing takes you?
With all the books I’ve written, I’ve always known what’s going to happen—except
one book I had to change. But in
all these others I had one idea and that was going to be the
terminus ad quem.
I wasn’t at all sure where I was going to start, but I knew perfectly
well where I was going to end. I knew exactly what was going to happen in the
last chapter but certainly not in the middle.
I suppose I must be categorized as a whodunit writer rather than as, the
kind of writer who concentrates on the motivation of crime.
Like Aristotle said, you need a beginning and a middle and an end—but
when I wrote I think that I never knew much about the middle.
That was really a bit of freewheeling.
There was, like Philip Larkin said, “a beginning, a muddle, and an end.”
I did know where the end was, so if I am categorized, it would have to be
as a whodunit man.
Well, I like whodunits a little more.
Some of the mystery novels these days tend to be very dark and the
authors seem to be trying to probe too much into the characters’ psychological
Yes. If you’re not careful, you’re
reading a psychological handbook, aren’t you?
You’re probably going to ask me later, I suppose, but certainly I’ve always very
much enjoyed the big surprise of being led up the garden path by writers like
Agatha Christie. You knew that she
was pulling the wool over your eyes from page one, but you didn’t know how she
was doing it until you got to the last chapter.
And, all right, some of them are very much better than others, but she’d
certainly have five or six titles in a list of the top twenty novels ever
written in the whodunit genre because she had a wonderfully gifted imagination
for puzzling the reader. I loved
that surprise at the end.
AFG: I know!
Who’d think of having a narrator as the murderer?
Or all the characters dying in Ten
Little Indians? So did you have
any idea that the Morse books would be this successful when you started out?
Oh, no. I’d no idea at all.
As I say, I wanted to try to write a crime book and, in my mind, if I
could have got through to the end of one book that would have been quite ample
for me. I was working and earning
well and I didn’t need to write books like some of my colleagues, who are driven
to get their income from their books alone.
I never had that at all. It
never occurred to me that there would be a continuation after I had finally
written the first one. I wrote it
in longhand, as I’ve done with all of my books.
I’ve never typed a word of any book I’ve written.
After I finished it, I went through from the beginning and crossed things
out, like Dr. Johnson advised.“Whenever you’ve written anything particularly
fine, strike it out!” When I was
done, I rewrote it and got somebody to type it.
I submitted it in 1973 or 1974.
That was the first work of fiction I’d ever done.
AFG: So tell us
about some of the similarities you have to Morse, because I know you both enjoy
classical music . . ..
Yes. Well, like dear old Morse,
I’ve been listening to Die Valkyrie.
He was a great Wagner lover and so am I.
I think that, really, the only important thing about Morse sometimes was
that he was a very sensitive man. I
think that if the Almighty—if there is an Almighty—has given me any gifts at
all, it is sensitivity to the arts and certainly music and literature.
Not quite so much painting.
I’m a bit of novice at the visual arts.
Morse was extraordinarily fond of Glenfiddich, a single malt Scotch, and
any real ale. I’ve been like him
all my life on that, and enjoyed alcohol far too much.
I’m not so clever as Morse.
What I wanted to do was to create someone who was extraordinarily clever, and
the cleverest man I ever knew was a man called Sir Jeremy Morse who was Chairman
of Lloyds Bank, President of the International Monetary Fund, and Fellow of All
Souls, Oxford—a wonderful man and a big friend of mine.
So I thought that I would have a detective who was extraordinarily clever
mentally. I’m not like him in that respect and certainly not like him in
meanness with money, I’m glad to say!
As you probably know, poor old Sergeant Lewis on half the salary had to
buy nine-tenths of the booze. I’m not like him in that respect!
He was also extremely fond of the ladies whom he met occasionally.
Most of them were the crooks.
Well, a lot them were crooks.
His temperament was very much on the pessimistic rather than the
optimistic side. He expected that
if it was going to turn out either good or bad, the odds were slightly on it
being bad rather than good. I’ve always felt a little bit that way as well.
Oddly enough, I’ve very often felt when I wake up [in the morning] that
something terrible is going to happen that day. It’s like when you’re backing a
horse—you’re expecting the thing to lose although you’ve bet on it to win.
AFG: So you’re
I am indeed, yes. I’ve not much
faith in the future of the planet and I’m not just thinking about Mr. Bush or
global warming. I feel that we’ve
lost our way and it looks as if, in so many fields, things are turning sour.
Even democracy is turning sour, isn’t it?
AFG: Why do you
think that’s happening?
CD: Well, I
suppose it is partly that we’ve lacked, over the past three or four decades, any
truly great world leaders. There
are terrible disasters and tragedies and miseries all over the place, in places
like Africa with the atrocities in Darfur, India until recently, and China.
So many of them have been brought to our notice by television that we’ve
almost become inured to cruelty and disasters and hopelessness in the world. We
don’t seem to have made an awfully good job of running things as a sort of
Or do you think it’s that people have given up on trying to influence their own
governments and that’s why we don’t have any great leaders?
Yes, I think part of it is that we’ve lost faith in the honour or honourability
of our leaders. We read so much
about incompetence and corruption in all sorts of places.
I’m not just thinking of the United Kingdom and the United States.
Almost everywhere there seems to me to be an increase in incompetence and
general dishonesty. This is what I mean about democracy—you feel that you’ve got
the ability to arrange things and influence matters and it’s not quite so easy
as that, I’m afraid.
absolutely right. It’s very
unfortunate. So why did you kill
off Inspector Morse?
CD: I didn’t
kill him. He died of natural
causes. He died simply because he’d drunk far too much and his liver was in a
pretty terrible state, he smoked far too many cigarettes and his lungs were none
too good, and he took virtually no exercise.
I think it was in the cards very early on that he was not going to live
long at all.
AFG: I know,
but Agatha Christie kept Poirot alive until he was well over one hundred!
Well, yes indeed. But she got fed
up with him for a bit, didn’t she?
She went on to Miss Marple and two younger people.
I didn’t get fed up with Morse, but I felt that everything was getting a
little bit clichéd, that things lacked freshness.
If I wanted to show that Morse was mean, I had to exemplify this with yet
another little episode about [him] being with Lewis in a pub just after opening
time and finding he’s forgotten or mislaid his wallet.
I felt it had lost its freshness.
Not that I wish to be equated in any way with Conan Doyle, but I think he
felt the same. He felt that he’d
said enough about the relationship between Holmes and Watson and he killed him
off. Then, of course, he
resurrected him. But I think,
certainly, that Conan Doyle did not write too well after he’d brought Holmes
back from the Reichenbach Falls.
I just felt that I was getting older, and I don’t think many people get better
as writers when they get older. Certainly I was feeling a little tired and had a
fairly busy life, but probably above all I felt I was running out of potential
ideas. I’m not like Christie at
all. How many did she write?
woman. I’m a huge admirer of her
intuitive ability to concoct plots.
I think she’s the greatest of all of us in that respect.
Not that she was a great writer—although she was a much better writer
than most people are prepared to admit—but certainly she was the brightest in
the firmament in terms of imaginative skill.
AFG: Well, it’s
become sort of in vogue nowadays to say that she was not a very good writer, so
it’s nice to hear that you say this because I still like her books.
Yes, I think that after the mid-fifties when everybody was translating her,
everybody was reading her, she was in every airport, and so on, she was under
huge pressure to write more and to write quickly.
I do think that some of Agatha Christie’s books are pretty dismal because
all you get is Poirot coming along and interviewing A, B, C, D, then later on
interviewing M, N, O. There’s no
development at all. Whereas in some of the earlier stories—you mentioned things
like Ten Little Indians or
ABC Murders or
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd—you’ve
got development of the whodunit aspects.
I think she had some wonderful ideas.
And she could write English well.
Certainly her autobiography was very well written. But I didn’t mind at
all that whenever Poirot went on holiday and was in a hotel, there was going to
be a murder committed. I was
perfectly happy to accept that. I
think one has to accept the Upstairs/Downstairs concept in her stories, as
well—with servants and local vicars and the sort of general ethos of village
life. But I suppose many people nowadays—probably here more so than in
America—think that we ought to have murders committed in basement flats in
Rotherham or places like that instead of mysteries where the butler comes in and
says, “What is it tonight My Lord?”
You have to accept that, don’t you, with Christie?
And accept it gladly.
GO BACK TO INTERVIEWS PAGE
One year sub: $19.95
Two year sub: $34.95