Mystery writer with sense of mischief

NEW YORK • Colin Dexter, a British mystery writer whose poetryloving detective, Chief Inspector Morse, pursued clues through 13 novels and a popular television series, died on Tuesday at his home in Oxford, England. He was 86.

The death was announced by his publisher, Macmillan, which did not state the cause.

Dexter, a former classics teacher, was suffering through a rainy family vacation in north Wales in the early 1970s when, out of boredom, he began sketching out the plot of a mystery about a young woman killed while hitchhiking. The book, Last Bus To Woodstock, was published in 1975 and introduced readers to an updated version of Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson.

Detective Chief Inspector Morse of the Thames Valley Constabulary of Kidlington was a gruff misanthrope with a sensitive soul. His partner, Detective Sergeant Lewis, was a working-class family man with the patience of a saint.

In the dozen novels that followed, Dexter, a fan of cryptic crosswords, planted false clues and red herrings with abandon, presenting Morse, and his readers, with fiendishly difficult puzzles to solve.

His sense of mischief extended to the epigraphs at the head of each chapter. The "Cameroonian proverb" and the pithy definition attributed to the non-existent Small's Enlarged English Dictionary were phonies invented by the author.

Colin Dexter

"I don't take all this awfully seriously," Dexter told The Irish Times in 1995. "There are more important things in life than detective stories. For me, it is just a bit of fun. I've never had to meet a deadline, never had to make a living out of writing a book. I just happened to be lucky."

Readers and his fellow mystery writers did take the books seriously. In 1989, the Crime Writers' Association of Britain gave him its Golden Dagger for The Wench Is Dead, in which Morse solved a century-old murder while recuperating in hospital.

Dexter received the award again in 1992 for The Way Through The Woods and, in 1997, he received the organisation's lifetime achievement award, the Diamond Dagger.

ITV brought the Morse books to television in the series Inspector Morse, which ran from 1987 to 2000 and generated a sequel, Lewis, and a prequel, Endeavour.

"He was one of the greatest crime novelists of the 20th century and deserves to be ranked alongside Raymond Chandler, (Agatha) Christie and (Arthur Conan) Doyle," Mr Andrew Gulli, editor of The Strand, a mystery magazine, wrote in an e-mail.

Norman Colin Dexter was born in Stamford, Lincolnshire. A bright student, he won a scholarship to Stamford School, a prestigious private institution. He completed his compulsory military service in the Royal Corps of Signals, where he became a Morse-code operator, a false clue for fans of the mysteries: Inspector Morse was named not after the code, but after Sir Jeremy Morse, chairman of Lloyds Bank and, like him, a crossword devotee.

Dexter earned a bachelor's degree in classics from Christ's College, Cambridge, in 1953. He embarked on a career as a teacher of classics and earned a master's degree from Cambridge in 1958. Growing deafness forced him to retire in 1966.

He became the senior assistant secretary at the Oxford Delegacy of Local Examinations, which set exams for secondary schools. He retired in 1988 and turned to writing full time. He is survived by his wife, a son and a daughter.

"I wanted to make him sweet and cerebral, a whiz kid with an alphaplus mind," Dexter told The Chicago Tribune in 1993, adding that although he shared with his detective a love of classical music and English literature, he could not compete in intellect. "People think I'm clever, but it's not true," he said. "The only thing I'm good at is crosswords."

He devoted a book to his hobby, Cracking Cryptic Crosswords: A Guide To Solving Cryptic Crosswords, published in 2010.

He often played Hitchcockian games. He appeared in cameo roles in Inspector Morse: Oxford tourist, doctor, prisoner, college porter, bishop, professor, bum. In 1996, he revealed that the characters in his first book had been named after regular competitors in the newspaper's crossword competitions.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 23, 2017, with the headline 'Mystery writer with sense of mischief'. Print Edition | Subscribe