Colin Dexter: The Next to Last Inspector Morse Novel
Posted by Barbara Leavy on Jun 15 2011, 8:24 AM
                                         Colin Dexter: The Next-to-Last Inspector Morse Novel
     Colin Dexter intended that the twelfth of his Inspector Morse novels. Death is Now My Neighbor, be the final one of his series.  But protests from Dexter’s devoted readers drew from him the concession that he would write one more Morse book. In it, the Inspector would definitely die of the ailments that were only ominously present in the previous novel, as it became clear that Morse would not make the lifestyle changes necessary to preserve his life. For Dexter had no intention of following in the footsteps of Arthur Conan Doyle, who, giving in to the pressures of his publishers and readers, resurrected Sherlock Holmes to become the subject of still more stories. In an interview printed in The Strand Magazine: The Magazine for Mystery and Short Story Lovers, Dexter said “I think, certainly, that Conan Doyle did not write too well after he’d brought Holmes back from Reichenbach Falls.”  About himself, Dexter added that he felt he was running out of ideas for plots. His point of reference was the seemingly inexhaustible ingenuity of Agatha Christie, whose narrative puzzles became for Inspector Morse symbolic of the puzzle laid out before him as he began to investigate a crime. And so Dexter went on to write The Remorseful Day, the last and also the thirteenth book in the Morse series.  A perhaps unlucky number for his devoted readers although apparently not for Dexter himself.  It is interesting to note that the number thirteen supplies a significant clue in Death is Now My Neighbor, but also that in this twelfth Morse novel, Dexter supplies a perhaps more revealing and certainly more complex reason for bringing his series to a close. Agatha Christie, whom Dexter did not think a great writer, although “a much better writer than most people are prepared to admit,” may not have been the model Dexter wanted to define his own career as a mystery writer.
     To repeat, in Death is Now My Neighbor, the number 13 plays a significant role in the plot.  This has to do with its use--or rather its deliberate omission--in the addresses of a row of houses in which a murder is committed.  If the murderer entered the house from the rear, where the numbers were not displayed, found and counted the odd numbers as he looked for number fifteen, he might have forgotten that thirteen, being deemed an unlucky number, would be skipped.  Looking for number fifteen, he would mistakenly take it for number seventeen, not remembering to count the odd numbers as eleven, fifteen, seventeen and so on. Possibly, in this emphasis on the number thirteen, Dexter was already prepared to write one final Morse novel, the thirteenth one. In Death is Now My Neighbor, the Inspector is diagnosed with diabetes, has already come close to destroying his liver with his beloved ale, is teetering on the edge of kidney failure, and is weakening his heart with excess weight and too little exercise. Despite half-hearted attempts on his part to follow the doctor’s orders, Morse makes it clear to those who know and love him, such as Sergeant Lewis and Dexter’s readers, that he has no intention of taking care of himself.  An underlying disappointment about his life subverts his occasional good intentions and saps his incentive to live.  But it also may be that like many authors of serial mysteries, Dexter believed he had taken the series as far as it could go—or at least as far as he cared to take it.  When Morse reveals to Lewis his first name, as if he is handing on to Lewis his mantle, he is also supplying a self-defining epithet: Endeavour Morse.
     It would not be surprising, then, that as Dexter wound down his series, he thought about the genre to which he had devoted his writing career. About halfway through Death is Now My Neighbor, Morse has to spend some time in the hospital and picks up an Agatha Christie novel, The ABC Murders. He thinks how he had “always enjoyed Agatha Christie: a big fat puzzle ready for the reader from page one.  Perhaps it would help a little with the big fat puzzle waiting for him in the world outside the Radcliffe Infirmary.” Morse is, of course, almost as addicted to crossword puzzles as he is to ale.  But the allusion to Christie carries with it additional associations.  For Agatha Christie is considered the queen of the genre mystery.  Creating the seemingly unsolvable mystery and then allowing her investigator to solve it was her forte.  Indeed, in And Then There Were None (also known as Ten Little Indians), in which every possible suspect ends up a victim and dies, the puzzle seems not to admit of any solution. For Christie’s fans, the attempt to unravel in her books the central mystery and to complete the puzzle was part of the enjoyment the author yielded.  For those scornful of what has come to be known as the genre mystery, such as Edmund Wilson and Raymond Chandler, the genre mystery was merely that, a puzzle in prose, yielding no more meaning and probably no more pleasure than a challenging crossword puzzle.
     It is worth pausing here to think about the aptness of the puzzle as a description of Morse’s investigations. The Inspector  is addicted to crossword puzzles, which also satisfy his fascination with language, with words that Lewis has never heard of even though, in deference to his superior, he strives to improve his vocabulary.  Still, it does seem that skill in completing crossword puzzles is a rather weak metaphor for a detective’s ability to solve crimes, and that by his last books, Dexter was aware of this.  Even when the puzzle has a theme that serves as a clue to many of the words, and even when a pattern is sustained in the overall visual form of the puzzle itself, there will still remain a basic lack of connection. Not every word will have an important relation to every other word.  There will be no essential whole to which each is related.  The crossword puzzle will not really uphold Morse’s conviction, expressed in The Remorseful Day, that to solve a mystery is to solve an essential puzzle: To quote Dexter on Morse, which in this case is really to quote Dexter, “It was the same old tantalizing challenge to puzzles that had faced him ever since he was a boy.  It was the certain knowledge that something had happened in the past—happened in an ordered, logical, very specific way.  And the challenge had been, and still was, to gather the disparate elements of the puzzle together and to try to reconstruct that ‘very specific way.’”
     If completing a puzzle is to be the culminating point of the investigator’s endeavour (my play on words here is deliberate), then another puzzle will supply a more apt metaphor, the jigsaw puzzle.  And, indeed, toward the end of The Remorseful Day, when Morse is close to his solution, he sits back in his armchair, “knowing that only a few of the pieces in the jigsaw remained to be fitted.  Earlier in the case the top half of the puzzle had presented itself as a monochrome blue, like the sky earlier that evening . . . But the jigsaw’s undifferentiated blue had been duly broken by a solitary seagull or two, by a piece of soft-white cloud, and later  by what Housman so memorably had called ‘the orange band of eve.’”  But even this more poetically described puzzle is not adequate.  For to complete a jigsaw requires only a dogged persistence and unthinking patience as one sorts colors into groups.  It is not a fitting analogy to the mental processes that Morse had brought to his work, the fine intellect that elicits high praise from his superior, Chief Superintendent Strange, in the eulogy delivered after Morse’s death: Morse was the most brilliant detective ever to work with the Thames Valley Police in Oxford. Such brilliance could not be characterized by the solving of a puzzle, crossword or jigsaw..
     Is there a point to analyzing the weakness of puzzles as metaphor in Dexter’s Inspector Morse series?  Yes, because his very shift from crossword to jigsaw puzzle as metaphor suggests that Dexter himself had questioned the analogy between criminal detection and solving puzzles, and it would only be a step from those questions to a close look at the conventional mystery of which Agatha Christie as its defining example. She had created, by Dexter’s count, eighty-five ingenious puzzles (this is the number he supplies in the Strand interview).  The question might not have been whether Dexter could match her in number, or even come close, since he claimed he was running out of ideas, but whether he would even want to take her as his model.
      It is therefore striking to look at a critical moment in Death is Now My Neighbor. Morse has been released from the hospital where he had read Christie’s ABC Murders, and is visiting the crime scene of another murder that confounds his investigation into an earlier one. Less to discover a clue than to satisfy his own penchant for reading, he looks  at the books owned and presumably read by the victim.  Among them he discovers paperback editions of P. D. James, Ruth Rendell, and Minette Walters.  P. D. James is a serious novelist, a master of fine prose, who has said of her friend and fellow mystery writer, Ruth Rendell, that Rendell transcends genre. Rendell, in turn, has been deemed by some of her peers (for example, Scott Turow) as one of the best writers in English of our times. Minette Walters, although perhaps not as well-known, especially in the United States,  as James or Rendell, takes her place with them as a serious novelist.  What is clear is that the mystery writers whose books Morse finds at the crime scene cannot be defined as essentially creators of puzzles. That  the three mystery novelists are a surprising group for the inhabitant of the house to read only reinforces Dexter's need to make distinctions between them and Christie, whom he had read in the hospital.
     Almost immediately after perusing these books, Morse ruminates on his lifelong desire to know things.  His queries about the nature of the universe created by God (who had created God?) had not been encouraged when he was young, and so he “lowered his sights a little” to solving mathematical equations and deciphering the choruses in Greek tragedies.  Then he transferred his need to know to “the field of crossword puzzles,” and he would with intense impatience he deemed paranoiac await the published solution to a puzzle he had failed to complete. From this putting together of puzzles and his intrinsic need to know emerged his way of solving crimes. For a sequence of events led to a crime and if only he could put together the clues, “some pattern would begin to clarify itself in his mind.” And he would identify a murderer.
     But this pattern would hardly be identical with assembling the pieces of a puzzle, for something far more complex would define the pattern.  The murderer would have, as Morse understood it, or perhaps more precisely, as Dexter describes it, a “human face” and possess a “human motive.”  And suddenly, Morse, or rather Dexter, makes an analogy between his own anxiety concerning his ability to continue to conceive of plots and Morse’s worry that this time he would fail to find the culprit and work through the puzzle. That this time Morse could fail is likened to the plight of a “hitherto highly acclaimed novelist with a score of best-sellers behind him who is suddenly assailed by a nightmarish doubt about his ability to write that one further winner; by a fear that he has come to the end of his creative output, and must face the possibility of defeat.”  Morse's and Dexter’s uncertainties coincide at this point in the twelfth novel.
     But Dexter has done more than perhaps confess the anxiety (or was it fatigue?) that might have caused him to write only one more, final book in his series.  He has also defined the distinction between, on one hand, Agatha Christie and her amazing skill at creating puzzles, and writers such as James, Rendell, and Walters, on the other.  The latter three explore motives that perhaps lie hidden deep in the unconscious, beneath the conscious thoughts that drive the murderer to the deadly deed. This difference between Christie and her successors, James, Rendell, and Walters, defines the distinction between mysteries that are essentially puzzles, and literary works that explore the ultimate mysteries of the human condition.
      To extend Dexter’s antithesis, embodied in the books Morse reads or examines in Death is Now My Neighbor, a mystery writer must first be a Christie, constructing an ingenious plot without which the mystery novel falls flat, and then be a James, Rendell, or Walters, writing as well a complex novel that draws the reader into the depths of human thought and feeling.  These authors (and there are others who write crime fiction that is also literary art) aim to please their readers, but they also confront the ambiguities of human life without simplifying them.  Where did Dexter locate himself among these mystery writers? Was it merely the fear that he was running out of narrative ideas that caused him to end the Inspector Morse series? Or did he indeed fear that for all of Morse’s brilliance, erudition, and love of opera and fine literature, his creator had not done more than supply him with puzzles to solve?
Note: I would like to thank a fine researcher in England for her diligent work and carefully kept files.  She prefers to be unnamed but knows I appreciate her supplying me with the newspaper article in which Dexter is reported to have agreed to write one further Inspector Morse novel after the twelfth one, and with the interview in Strand Magazine. That interview allowed me to bring together some disparate elements in my own analysis and to complete the jigsaw puzzle that is this brief essay on Dexter and Morse. I would also like to thank John King and Michael Salisbury, members of my Ruth Rendell online discussion group (run by Yahoo), for reading earlier versions of this essay and pointing out where I was not always clear. 
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