Colin Dexter: weaving cryptic crosswords into his mysteries

February 26, 2022 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, fiction, journalism, writers, writing.

When Colin Dexter went on vacation with his family to Wales in 1970, he got bored, seriously bored.

Dexter had been a Classics teacher for most of his career, and of course, he was a reader. He had been reading a detective novel, but he put it down, dissatisfied.

He also had another hobby. He liked to work cryptic crosswords. Cryptic crosswords are extremely difficult for the uninitiated, but Dexter had been working them for years, and he enjoyed the intellectual challenge that they presented.

Neither of these things—his reading or his cryptic crosswords—satisfied him during that particular vacation. So, he started to think about the plot for a novel that he might write. He could do better than what he was reading, a thought not uncommon with the way that many authors got into writing.

He started sketching out an outline of what a story might be if there was a woman who was killed when she was hitchhiking. The detective in the case would be someone with several unique qualities in the annals of detective fiction.

He would be a bachelor, an intellectual, and, not surprisingly, a man who loved cryptic crosswords. He could be unpleasant and selfish, and he would be particularly hard on his  sergeant, who recognized his talents in solving crimes and who was willing to put up with him.

The result was a detective chief inspector in the Thames Valley Constabulary. He was a man who loved poetry and loved Wagner. He was a detective who disliked looking at dead bodies.

His sergeant would be a working-class bloke and not a reader of books or a worker of crossword puzzles of any type. The sergeant would be a family man, taking those responsibilities very seriously.

And one other thing about the chief inspector: he was a drinker. Not an alcoholic. He didn’t have a problem with drinking. He didn’t get drunk. He just loved alcohol, and he would drink it at any time of the day or night. He often substituted alcohol, especially beer, for food.

Dexter’s creation, of course, was Chief Inspector Morse and his faithful Sergeant Lewis. The book that he was outlining in Wales became his first novel, Last Bus to Woodstock, and was published in 1975.

The Morse-Lewis duo was a new and imaginative take on Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson and Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings. The plots Dexter constructed were not unlike the cryptic crosswords that he enjoyed so much. They were complicated, full of clues and red herrings. Morse often got it wrong. He would jump to conclusions early in the case, and while Sergeant Lewis would try valiantly to open him up to other possibilities, Morse would remain doggedly dedicated to his conclusion—until toward the end of the story when he was proven wrong.

A dozen novels followed his first, and in 1987 actor John Thaw brought Morse to life brilliantly in a series of BBC television programs. That series was produced until 2000. Kevin Whately played Sergeant Lewis to perfection, and those two gathered fans for Dexter’s murder mystery series all over the world.

For his writing, Dexter won just about every award that could be given to mystery and crime writers. In 1997 he received the Diamond Dagger award from the Crime Writers’ Association of Britain. His status today ranks with Raymond Chandler, Agatha Christie, and Arthur Conan Doyle.

Dexter was born in Lincolnshire in 1930, and by 1953 he had completed his military service and earned a bachelor’s degree in Classics at Cambridge. He became a teacher of Classics at the grammar school level, but his increasing deafness forced him into retirement in 1966. From then on, he was an official for an organization that set exams for secondary schools. In 1988 he retired and began writing full-time.

His Morse creation became so popular that it inspired a spinoff series, one featuring Sergeant Lewis and the other a current series appearing regularly on PBS called Endeavor. Endeavor was Morse’s first name, something long withheld from readers and from television fans. The Endeavor series shows Morse at the beginning of his career as a detective in the 1950s and 1960s.

Dexter continued writing—and working crosswords—for most of the rest of his life. He died at his home in Oxford, England in 2017. He was 86 years old.


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