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The Man Behind Inspector Morse


His name is Inspector Morse, one of the sharpest minds on England's Tims Valley police force. He's an opera-loving, gruff cop - and a figment of author Colin Dexter's imagination.

Still, he's a figment familiar to a lot of people, fans of Dexter's Morse novels and of the Morse films that air on public television's "Mystery!" and the Arts & Entertainment (A&E) cable channel.

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Monitor Radio host David Brown interviewed Mr. Dexter recently in Boston.

When you wrote the first Morse mystery back in 1973, did you have any idea what you were getting yourself into?

No, I didn't. All I hoped was that, you know, I'd write one book with a bit of luck. And so when you've written one book and everybody's kind to you, they say 'Well what about trying another one?' Then somebody says, 'You've written two and they're not too bad, why don't you try three?' I mean the whole thing for me was a gradual accumulation of things, rather like the telly, really.

I really never had the faintest idea that the old boy would prosper as he has done now.

It's very interesting because in many respects he is kind of an unlikely likeable character. He is a smart man but he is also, I think it safe to say, rather arrogant and somewhat difficult, especially to his underlings.

(Interrupting) What you're saying is that [he's] a miserable old sot.

I was going to leave that to you, actually.

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Yes, well he's all right. He's sensitive in a vulnerable soul and he's OK. The trouble with him really is that he is enormously mean with any kind of money. He lacks any kind of gratitude or graciousness.

But on the whole ... he's quite interesting. He knows a few of the poets. He's pretty good at crossword puzzles.... He's very fond of fair women, and dark women for that matter. But he is a bit of a miserable, pessimistic, rather melancholy old boy, I do agree.

Do you find that it is kind of puzzling why so many people are drawn to him or do you think that people like the fact that he is a whole individual as opposed to just all his constituent elements of nastiness?

I think we came along at the right time. I'm a great admirer of much in American culture but I think some of the writing and some of the television is full of car chases, helicopter rescues, and shooting people off of cranes, and so on. I think the zeitgeist was right when I came up with Inspector Morse, an English, rather tedious, plodding ... detective.

I think people were ready for that, I think I was very fortunate. And I think that on the telly a lot of the girls fancy him, don't they? I think half the audience would rather like to be with the old boy in spite of his meanness.

I am curious though, why all the novels are set at Oxford, yet you are a man who was educated at the other university?

Yes - I still want Cambridge to win the boat race - I was only there four years but I've been at Oxford 31 years now. Well, since I know nothing about television and absolutely less about the police force, I think I ought to know something about one aspect of things, and Oxford I do know and love. I spend all my time on topography or whatever the word is, topology, of Oxford.

I never go into the police station and ask what happened if there's a murder or anything like that. I would never do that. And I've already murdered 73 people in Oxford, so you know the place is becoming the crime capital of not only the United Kingdom but of the European Common Market as well.

I'm sure you've seen many times over the different films that have been made of the Morse dramas. Do you find the existence of him in the flesh in any way affects the way that you write about him.

Seeing him on the telly? No, no not with old Morse, he's always been a melancholy old boy.

Certainly with Sergeant Lewis, because when the television came along they wanted to make him a very much younger person. He was a grandfather in the first book, but I've never been a full-time writer.

I'd forgotten that he was a grandfather, so when they said, 'Would you make him a young man?' I said 'Yes.' I've said yes to everything they've asked me. He's a younger fellow now.... I don't mind that at all. It does affect me a bit with Sergeant Lewis but Morse hasn't changed, no.

Do you see yourself several years from now still writing Inspector Morse mysteries?

We've done almost enough. We've almost said enough. He's growing old. It's time to pack up the old boy, and [that he] started listening to Wagner all day instead of only in the evenings. I think he is looking forward to that.

He's going to retire.

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