Inspector Morse in the Oxford English Dictionary
Inspector Morse solved his first murder in the 1975 novel Last Bus to Woodstock; a further 12 books and numerous dead bodies later, he met his own end in The Remorseful Day (1999). Before turning to detective fiction, Morse’s creator, Colin Dexter, was a Classics teacher; the rituals of school life emerge in quotations from the novels found under the Oxford English Dictionary entries for schoolbell, revise, resit, and – perhaps most significant from a biographical perspective given his change of career – recompense: ‘School masters, even experienced second masters, aren’t all that highly recompensed’.
The influence of crosswords
Morse inherited many of his inventor’s passions: the Classics, real ale, Classical music, and cryptic crosswords. In addition to being an expert solver, Colin Dexter compiled crosswords for The Oxford Times under the pseudonym Codex (from the Latin for ‘book’, hidden in his name: COlin DEXter). Dexter was for many years a regular winner of The Observer newspaper’s cryptic clue-writing competition. Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis take their names from two of Dexter’s principal rivals in that contest – Sir Jeremy Morse (former chairman of Lloyds Bank) and Mrs B. Lewis.
In fact all the characters in the first Morse novel, with the exception of the murderer, are named after Dexter’s crosswording comrades. Morse’s first name remains a secret throughout the series; in the penultimate novel, Death is Now my Neighbour (1996), Morse revealed that he was named Endeavour – now the title of a prequel based on Morse’s early career – after Captain Cook’s ship. In the TV adaptation Morse hints at his name using a cryptic crossword clue: ‘My whole life’s effort has revolved around Eve’ [an anagram (‘revolved’) of around Eve = Endeavour ‘My whole life’s effort’].
Off the top of one’s head…
As a detective, Morse is famous for his unusual and inspirational methods, often to the frustration of his sidekick, Sergeant Lewis, and Chief Superintendent Strange. Lewis’s preference for traditional police work over his boss’s unconventional modus operandi is captured in a quotation from The Dead of Jericho (1981) in the OED entry for off the top of one’s head ‘impromptu, without consideration, superficially’: ‘A bit of bread-and-butter investigation was worth a good deal more than some of that top-of-the-head stuff’. But, despite his unconventional methods, Morse is a stickler for correct spelling and grammar, often despairing of the sloppiness he encounters in police reports. His preference for traditional language is captured in the OED entry for Prayer-Book: ‘Morse himself had been sickened by the latest version of the Funeral Service. Gone were those resonant cadences of the AV [Authorized Version] and the Prayer Book’.
But where Morse is a grammatical pedant, Lewis – best known as Kevin Whately’s Geordie, himself the star of the spin-off series Lewis, but a Welshman in the novels – is more prone to colloquialisms. He appears under the OED entry for ‘spect ‘nonstandard pronunciation of I expect’: ‘Has the wife got the chips on, Lewis?’ ‘I ‘spect so.’
Morse’s death in the OED
Colin Dexter’s background in Classics and crosswording contribute to the use of some arcane vocabulary, as in the example listed under OED prognathic ‘Having projecting or forward-pointing jaws or lower jaw’: ‘He looked down at her squarish, slightly prognathic face, her dark-brown silky hair cut short in a fringe across her broad forehead’. Dexter does not spare his readers the grisly details of Morse’s physical demise, which can be charted through the pages of the OED. Dexter’s account of Morse’s hospitalization draws upon correct medical terminology, as seen in this quotation from the OED entry for electrocardiograph: ‘An electrocardiograph test had firmly established that the patient had suffered a hefty anterior myocardial infarct’.
Despite being the subject of this ominous diagnosis, Morse revels in the ‘sesquipedalian’ terminology, which appeals to his love of words ‘more than a foot-and-a-half long’. Morse’s final moments are recorded in the OED entry for resuscitate, where his doctor’s diagnosis is coldly recorded: ‘The heart is irreparably damaged; kidney failure already apparent. Without specific request from n.o.k. [next of kin]..inappropriate to resuscitate’.
The mysterious Diogenes Small
Dexter’s own penchant for recondite Classical formations may also be traced to his wide reading in the works of Diogenes Small – an author frequently cited in the quotations that preface new chapters of the Morse novels. Alongside pithy, wry, and ironic observations on modern life – ‘Be it ever so humble there’s no place like home for sending one slowly crackers’- there are frequent quotations from Small’s English Dictionary – which appeared in 18 revised editions – as well as Small’s Latin Dictionary. Quotations include a Johnsonian definition of pension ‘monies grudgingly bestowed on ageing hirelings after a lifetime of occasional devotion to duty’, and medical conditions like prosopagnosia ‘the failure of any person to recognize the face of any other person’, and hypoglycaemia ‘abnormal reduction of sugar content of the blood – for Diabetes sufferers a condition more difficult to spell than to spot’. But Diogenes Small is simply another of Dexter’s fictional creations – since it was not always possible to find an appropriate quotation for a particular chapter, Dexter simply devised the quotations and attributed them to an invented author, whose name links him to the Greek philosopher Diogenes of Sinope, one of the founders of the Cynical school.
The importance of being Oxford
The success of the ITV series Inspector Morse, which ran to 33 episodes, was undoubtedly encouraged by its lavish depiction of the Oxford settings. Inspector Morse Tours of the city remain a popular tourist attraction; the Randolph Hotel has a ‘Morse Bar’ in honour of the heavy-drinking sleuth who was a regular visitor when mulling over a case. But where the TV series played fast and loose with Oxford geography – the detectives frequently pass through the lodge of one college only to find themselves in the quad of a different one – the Oxford of the novels is lovingly and pedantically reconstructed.
Since many of the murders are committed within the walls of the famous colleges, Dexter sensibly invented fictional names – Beaumont, Lonsdale, and Wolsey Colleges (named after Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, founder of Christ Church) all appear in the novels. But while the TV series offered its viewers a cut-and-paste Oxford, there is one constant that links all of the episodes – whether dressed as a bowler-hatted porter or as a don in academic robes, the figure of Dexter himself can always be spotted in the background.