Dexter, Colin 1930–

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Dexter, Colin 1930–

(N.C. Dexter, Norman Colin Dexter)

PERSONAL: Born September 29, 1930, in Stamford, England; son of Alfred (a taxi driver) and Dorothy (Towns) Dexter; married Dorothy Cooper (a physiotherapist), March 31, 1956; children: Sally, Jeremy. Education: Christ's College, Cambridge, B.A., 1953, M.A., 1958.

ADDRESSES: Home—56 Banbury Rd., Oxford OX2 7RG, England.

CAREER: Wyggeston School, Leicester, England, assistant classics master, 1954–57; Loughborough Grammar School, Loughborough, England, sixth form classics master, 1957–59; Corby Grammar School, Corby, England, senior classics master, 1959–66; Oxford Local Examination Board, Oxford, England, assistant secretary, 1966–76, senior assistant secretary, 1976–87. Military service: Royal Corps of Signals, 1949–50.

MEMBER: Crime Writers Association, Detection Club.

AWARDS, HONORS: Honorary M.A., Oxford University, 1966; Silver Dagger Award, Crime Writers Association, 1979, for Service of All the Dead, and 1981, for The Dead of Jericho; Gold Dagger Award, Crime Writers Association, 1989, for The Wench Is Dead, and 1992, for The Way through the Woods; honorary M.A., Leicester University, 1996; Medal of Merit, Lotus Club, 1996; Cartier Diamond Dagger, Crime Writers Association, 1997, for outstanding services to crime literature.



Last Bus to Woodstock, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1975.

Last Seen Wearing (also see below), St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1976.

The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1977.

Service of All the Dead, Macmillan (London, England), 1979, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1980.

The Dead of Jericho, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1981.

The Riddle of the Third Mile (also see below), Macmillan (New York, NY), 1983.

The Secret of Annexe 3 (also see below), Macmillan (London, England), 1986, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1987.

The Wench Is Dead, Macmillan (London, England), 1989, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1990.

The Jewel That Was Ours, Macmillan (London, England), 1991, Crown (New York, NY), 1992.

The Way through the Woods, Macmillan (London, England), 1992, Crown (New York, NY), 1993.

Morse's Greatest Mystery and Other Stories (contains "As Good as Gold," "Morse's Greatest Mystery," "Evans Tries an O-Level," "Dead as a Dodo," "At the Lulu-Bar Motel," "Neighbourhood Watch," "A Case of Mis-Identity," "The Inside Story," "Monty's Revolver," "The Carpet-Bagger," and "Last Call"), Macmillan (London, England), 1993.

The Daughters of Cain, Macmillan (London, England), 1994, Crown (New York, NY), 1995.

Death Is Now My Neighbour, Macmillan (London, England), 1996, Crown (New York, NY), 1997.

The Remorseful Day: The Final Inspector Morse Novel, Crown (New York, NY), 1999.


(Under name N.C. Dexter, with E.G. Rayner) Liberal Studies: An Outline Course, 2 volumes, Macmillan (London, England), 1964, revised edition, 1966.

(Under name N.C. Dexter, with E.G. Rayner) Guide to Contemporary Politics, Pergamon (London, England), 1966.

Work represented in several anthologies, including Murder Ink, edited by Dilys Winn, Workman Pub. (New York, NY), 1977; Winter's Crimes 9, edited by George Hardinge, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1978; Winter's Crimes 13, edited by Hardinge, St. Martin's Press, 1982; and Winter's Crimes 21, edited by Hilary Hale, Macmillan(London, England), 1989.

ADAPTATIONS: Stories based on Dexter's Inspector Morse character were adapted for television and aired on the PBS program Mystery!; Inspector Morse: Driven to Distraction by Anthony Minghella is a screenplay based on characters created by Dexter and published by University of Cambridge Press, 1994. Several of Dexter's novels have also been recorded and released as audio books.

SIDELIGHTS: "To most readers of Colin Dexter's books," wrote Dictionary of Literary Biography contributor Bernard Benstock, "his major accomplishment is the creation of his particular detective hero, Detective Chief Inspector Morse of the Thames Valley Constabulary of Kidlington, Oxon." Inspector Morse is an irascible figure, fond of beer and tobacco, but nonetheless held in awe by his associate, Detective Sergeant Lewis. "At times," Benstock revealed, "his seediness is similar to the seediness of a Graham Greene character, his bluster and swagger similar to John Mortimer's Rumpole of the Bailey, but always there is an element of the pathetic to counterbalance the braggadocio. Morse's vulnerable and remarkable character unfolds serially from book to book, so that eventually there are no mysteries about him—except for his given name."

Dexter introduced Inspector Morse in 1975 in Last Bus to Woodstock, which established many of the central characteristics of Dexter's work. "Last Bus to Woodstock concerns the brutal murder (and possible sex-murder) of a scantily clad female hitchhiker, whose companion at the bus stop fails to identify herself," wrote Benstock. "Several young women are likely possibilities for the companion, but Morse is frustrated by their refusal to be honest with him." Morse finds himself sidetracked after having identified the wrong person as the murderer. "The grisly deaths of a husband and wife, each of whom had confessed to the murder," Benstock continued, "bring matters to a head, and Morse apprehends the woman murderer—an attractive young woman he had admired, who confesses that she has fallen in love with him—as she is taken away to stand trial." Dexter treats each of the Morse mysteries as a puzzle, complete with misleading clues, red herrings, and false trails. "Once you choose the wrong word," explained a Virginia Quarterly Review contributor, "the whole puzzle can be filled incorrectly."

Morse's irritability is balanced by his companion in mystery-solving, Detective Sergeant Lewis. Cushing Strout, writing in Armchair Detective, compared the relationship between Lewis and Morse to that of Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes and John Watson, calling Dexter's work "the best contemporary English example of adapting and updating Doyle's technique." Like Holmes, Strout continued, "Morse is a bachelor," but, "in spite of his generally cynical expectations about human nature and the world, unlike Holmes he is always romantically vulnerable (in spite of disappointing experience) to being smitten by love at first sight for some attractive and intelligent, but quite inappropriate woman." In contrast to Morse, Strout continued, Sergeant Lewis "is working class, a family man, and a competent policeman in a routine way. He has a refreshing common sense that Morse often sorely lacks, and the two men (like Holmes and Watson in this respect) know how to tease each other."

Dexter, Strout explained, "has collated his novels under the heading of 'what may be termed (though it sounds a bit posh) the exploitation of reader-mystification.'" This is a traditional attribute of English detective fiction: the ability to mislead the reader, who is trying to identify the culprit. The classic mystery novel, as set forth by one of the earliest practitioners of the genre, G.K. Chesterton, should present the reader with all the clues available to the detective, but in such a way that the reader fails to make the connection with the criminal until after the detective uncovers the guilty party. "Inferior writers," Strout continued, "tend to cast suspicion on so many characters that it is … like hiding one card amid the rest of the deck, rather than performing the much more difficult classic trick, wherein the 'money card' is one of only three cards." "Dexter," the critic concluded, "keeps shifting the pieces, like a conjuror misdirecting the audience by giving a specious explanation of his trick, until they finally make a coherent and credible picture with the lagniappe of a last surprise." In a review of The Daughters of Cain for the New York Times Book Review, Marilyn Stasio advised readers "to get out their pencils, timetables and aspirin."

As the series progresses, Dexter also begins to play highly literate games with his readers, ranging from apparently gratis references to literature, such as James Joyce's Ulysses in The Riddle of the Third Mile and Sophocles' Oedipus trilogy of plays in The Dead of Jericho. He also uses inscriptions and epigraphs at the beginning of each chapter like a chorus in a Greek play to comment on the story's action and the state of Morse's mind. "The basic norm in the Dexter novels," Ben-stock declared, "is best characterized by the epigraph to chapter 14 of The Riddle of the Third Mile: 'Preliminary investigations are now in full swing, and Morse appears unconcerned about the contradictory evidence that emerges.'"

Morse demonstrates many of his best points in the Gold Dagger award-winning novel, The Wench Is Dead. Critics have compared the book to Josephine Tey's classic detective novel The Daughter of Time, in which her detective, Alan Grant, immobilized in hospital with a fractured spine, tries to solve a historical mystery—the disappearance of young Edward V and his brother Richard of York in the Tower of London during the reign of Richard III. Morse is hospitalized with a bleeding ulcer, and to ease his boredom he reopens a Victorian murder case that took place in Oxford: the death by drowning of a female passenger on a canal boat in the mid-nineteenth century. Morse's wits and temper, wrote Stasio in the New York Times Book Review, "tug the reader into the detective's hospital bed to share his single-minded pursuit of the truth."

Dexter ended the "Inspector Morse" series in 1999 with his final case, The Remorseful Day: The Final Inspector Morse Novel. Morse is called in to re-investigate the two-year-old murder of a local nurse, a woman with whom he was once romantically involved. In the course of the investigation, Morse's long-time health problems come to the fore, leading to a final ending not only to the story but to the Morse series. "This finale to a grand series," noted the critic for Publishers Weekly, "presents a moving elegy to one of mystery fiction's most celebrated and popular characters." Reviewing the novel for Booklist, Bill Ott described it as "an audaciously clever and surprisingly moving finale."

Dexter's "Inspector Morse" novels have established him as a pivotal figure in modern English detective fiction. Throughout the series, Benstock stated, "the comic vies with the grotesque, pathos with the tragic, within an effective evocation of the mundane. The surface realities of ordinary life consistently color the criminal situations without impinging on the careful artifice of the usual murders and the bumbling but brilliant methods of investigation undertaken almost in spite of himself by Chief Inspector E. Morse." According to the essayist for the St. James Guide to Crime and Mystery Writers, with his series Dexter "has established himself in the forefront of British writers with some of the cleverest and most complicated plots, delighting a vast and ever growing band of devoted readers." Michael Leap-man, writing in the New Statesman, called Morse "one of the great detectives of English fiction."



Contemporary Popular Writers, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1997.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 87: British Mystery and Thriller Writers since 1940, First Series, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1989.

St. James Guide to Crime and Mystery Writers, 4th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.


Armchair Detective, winter, 1989, pp. 76-77; fall, 1990, p. 497; summer, 1993, review of The Jewel That Was Ours, p. 45; summer, 1994, p. 272; summer, 1995, review of The Daughters of Cain, p. 342; fall, 1995, pp. 434-437.

Booklist, March 1, 1995, Emily Melton, review of The Daughters of Cain, p. 1139; October 1, 1995, Emily Melton, review of Morse's Greatest Mystery, p. 212; December 1, 1996, Bill Ott, review of Death Is Now My Neighbor, p. 619; December 1, 1999, Bill Ott, review of The Remorseful Day, p. 660.

Books, November, 1994, review of The Daughters of Cain, p. 16.

Entertainment Weekly, April 23, 1993, Gene Lyons, review of The Way through the Woods, p. 50; April 4, 1997, Nikki Amdur, review of Death Is Now My Neighbor, p. 79; December 12, 1997, Tom De Haven, review of The Way through the Wood, p. 78.

Insight on the News, May 22, 1995, Elizabeth M. Cosin, review of Daughters of Cain, p. 25.

Kirkus Reviews, March 1, 1995, review of The Daughters of Cain, p. 270.

Library Journal, February 1, 2000, Fred M. Gervat, review of The Remorseful Day, p. 121.

Listener, July 8, 1976; June 30, 1977.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 9, 1995, review of The Daughters of Cain, p. 12.

New Republic, March 4, 1978.

New Statesman, September 20, 1996, Boyd Tonkin, "Watching the Detectives," p. 45; October 25, 1999, Michael Leapman, review of The Remorseful Day, p. 54; November 20, 2000, Andrew Billen, "Requiem for a Cop," p. 47.

New York Times Book Review, May 20, 1990, p. 53; April 4, 1993; April 16, 1995, review of The Daughters of Cain, p. 29; March 2, 1997, review of Death Is Now My Neighbor, p. 20.

People, May 8, 1995, Cynthia Sanz, review of The Daughters of Cain, p. 46.

Publishers Weekly, March 8, 1993, review of The Way through the Woods, p. 71; March 13, 1995, review of The Daughters of Cain, p. 63; October 9, 1995, review of Morse's Greatest Mystery, p. 79; December 30, 1996, review of Death Is Now My Neighbor, p. 57; January 24, 2000, review of The Remorseful Day, p. 296.

Time, April 26, 1993, p. 65, William A. Henry III, review of The Way through the Woods, p. 65.

Times Literary Supplement, September 26, 1975; April 23, 1976; August 26, 1977; June 5, 1981; October 25, 1991, p. 21; October 23, 1992, p. 22; December 23, 1994, review of The Daughters of Cain, p. 21.

Virginia Quarterly Review, autumn, 1992, p. 131.

Wall Street Journal, April 27, 1995, review of The Daughters of Cain, p. A12; March 28, 1997, review of Death Is Now My Neighbor, p. A14.

Washington Post Book World, December 20, 1987, p. 8.