The death on March 21st of crime writer Colin Dexter at the age of 86 has caused much sadness within the Morse family.
Not the family of Inspector Morse, the deep-thinking gentleman detective featured in 13 of Dexter’s novels and played by John Thaw in the classic ITV series from 1987 until 2000 – his millions of fans know he had neither a wife nor children.
But the family of Sir Jeremy Morse, the brilliant banker, celebrated chess expert and crossword compiler who inspired the famous fictional character, and sadly died himself just over a year ago, at 87.
Described by Dexter as “the most intelligent man I have ever met”, Jeremy Morse was at 36 the second youngest Bank Of England director ever, the following year became alternate governor for the International Monetary Fund for Britain, he was knighted in 1975, and chairman of Lloyds Bank from 1977 until 1993. Among many coincidences, Colin Dexter and Jeremy Morse were both married for 61 years until their deaths, and Dexter has a son named Jeremy. The second of Sir Jeremy’s fourchildren, 56-year old Andy Morse, here gives a charming insight into the wonderful gift Colin Dexter bestowed upon them by choosing their surname for his leading man.
‘Our whole family wept a little on hearing the news of Colin’s passing’ says Andy. ‘It’s how I felt when Inspector Morse died from a heart attack at the end of the TV series – I genuinely cried then. The loss of Colin made me reflect on what a wonderful connection it has been – something we are incredibly proud of. My siblings and I teased our father that, despite all the incredible things he’d done in his life, he was only ever going to be remembered as the inspiration for Inspector Morse!’
Colin Dexter and Jeremy Morse first became aware of one another in the 1950s through traditional dinners The Observer newspaper threw for solvers of its fiendish Ximenes crossword. ‘People might assume they were childhood or university friends, but the truth is they were fierce rivals in that monthly crossword competition for about 50 years, and didn’t sit next to each other at those dinners’ Andy explains.
‘Colin didn’t tell my father he’d used his surname for his Inspector until his first Morse book, Last Bus To Woodstock, was in the process of being published in 1975 – so frankly it was too late if Dad had objected. Given that, at the time, Dad considered Colin Dexter to be his crossword rival rather than a close friend, Dad was immensely chuffed that Colin had chosen his name….though Dad also pointed out that Morse is a great name for a detective anyway. Among the names of the other crossword-solvers, ours jumped out because of Morse Code which creates a sense of mystery. Colin also regarded Dad’s brain as the kind that could solve complex mysteries. It was really only my Dad’s name and brain that Colin used for Inspector Morse; the rest of the character is Colin who was a connoisseur of beer, listened to classical music, etcetera.
‘Colin sent Dad a signed hardback first edition of Last Bus To Woodstock. Dad usually read classics and Latin and Greek, but he made an exception for this novel, and after reading it he said “It’s good of its type”. Then he gave it to the rest of the family for us to read, but at the time he didn’t mention that the main character was named after him. We all read it though and all of us thought it was fantastic to have our own Dad as the hero of a book. We all loved detective books anyway – it’s my favourite genre.
‘Dad thought there would only be the one Morse book, we’d keep it on the family bookshelves and that would be the end of it. But I carried on reading Colin’s Morse novels…until the television series started because that was better than the books.’
Andy describes the impact of the enormously popular TV show, comprising 33 2-hour episodes, on him and his siblings: ‘It was like Christmas and birthdays and everything good coming together. We just couldn’t believe it. What had been a sort of inside-the-family story was suddenly a massive television hit starring John Thaw who we’d loved since he was in The Sweeney.
‘But, just as he did with the Morse books, Dad watched the first episode and no more after that. But I need to put that in context: Dad hardly ever watched telly. He preferred to play Scrabble or Chess or do crosswords. Even at the end of his life when he was bed-ridden and couldn’t speak, he was still beating us at Scrabble.’
Andy reveals that his father didn’t meet Dexter properly until about 25 years ago. ‘Dad discovered that Colin lived in north Oxford, and visited the address he had for him, but there was no reply. He looked through the window and spotted the red Chambers dictionary that is the favoured book which all serious cruciverbalists (crossword experts) use as reference, so Dad then knew he’d got the right house. He called through the letterbox: “Colin, it’s Jeremy Morse!” and it led to a brief but cordial chat on the doorstep.
‘I think Colin’s character really changed with the success of Inspector Morse in that he became much more outgoing. If I was going to say one unflattering thing about Colin it would be that he was quite taciturn in the sense that he didn’t always react socially how you’d expect him to. But then he was a brilliant mind, and brilliant minds don’t react how you’d expect them to, which makes them such fascinating people. He and Dad did become friends in due course. Because Colin wasn’t particularly sociable, we felt honoured that he came to our house in Gloucestershire for tea with my parents. On one of his visits, he walked with Dad past my Mum’s car, pointed at the back of it and roared with laughter. He’d spotted a little sticker for Endeavour Insurance, having only shortly before decided to give Inspector Morse the first name Endeavour.’
Morse’s first name was kept a secret until the end of the book and TV episode entitled Death is Now My Neighbour. Previously, the character claimed that he should be called “Morse” and joked that his first name was “Inspector”. Prior to the Endeavour revelation, fans were able to bet on what it was…knowing only it began with an E.
‘Dad told us he knew what Morse’s first name was, and we kept saying “You’ve got to tell us because we want to run down to the bookies!”, but he refused to let us know. If he had, we could have made a fortune because the odds on it being Endeavour were long. I tell that story to Inspector Morse fans because it illustrates what an honourable man my father was.’
Andy is the managing partner of the Pen To Paper stationery shops based, like Inspector Morse, in Oxford. He mentions more coincidences. ‘By chance, Colin was a customer of my shop in Sommertown, Oxford, and we’d have jokey conversations about the tiny cameo roles he played in every episode of Inspector Morse – he’d tip me off where he was going to pop up next. I was once watching cricket at The Oval, noticed Kevin Whately (the actor who played Lewis to Thaw’s Morse) was sitting two rows in front of me, and I instigated a nice chat with him over a beer. And I was with Dad when we bumped into John Thaw at Heathrow once – we had a plane to catch, but Dad and John were gassing away. For a brief period until John Thaw’s death in 2002, he and my father were friendly. John was very different from Dad – he was mercurial while Dad was very genial – and we assumed they’d never get on, yet they really hit it off.’
Asked if the family is over-laden with Morse memorabilia, Andy replies: ‘Dad wasn’t interested in collecting anything. The only memento we have in our house is the original hardback of Last Bus To Woodstock.’
That will soon be joined by Andy’s debut novel, which has the working title Stealing From Thieves, though with fitting mystery he will not be writing it under his own name. Before turning author himself, Andy benefitted from the advice of Colin Dexter. ‘Colin said “Make the plot as complex and brilliant as you possibly can, and then make it as simple as possible so everyone can understand it.” That was contradictory but reflected how brilliant his mind was. He said his problem was that he was far too clever to be a really good writer because he’d get into complexities that people simply couldn’t understand. I fear that my book may also be like that! But if my writing is considered as good as Colin Dexter’s I’d think it a job well done and score myself an A+.
‘It was always my intention to give a copy of my book to Colin, but sadly that won’t happen now.’
Touchingly, Andy is naming one of the characters in his book “Dexter”. ‘That is me returning his great compliment, a small thank you and token of my family’s affection for Colin Dexter.
‘Inspector Morse keeps popping up in our family’s life, in lovely heart-warming ways. It’s always a nice thing to reflect upon for me mourning for my father. We loved Dad and we’re incredibly proud of him anyway. People rarely remember bankers, but we think Inspector Morse is going to live on forever.’