Cerebral TV sleuth Endeavor Morse first materialized in Colin Dexter’s best-selling crime novels. Morse was a fascinating new kind of cop, a sensitive soul in love with opera and poetry, not stereotypically weary and alcoholic. Inspector Morse continued to hook American viewers from 1988 to 2001, generated the sequel Inspector Lewis (2006-2016), and the prequel Effort (2012–) starring Shaun Evans as young Morse.
Here are the 13 titles as published, with commentary from two detective novel aficionados who knew Dexter—Barry Forshaw, author of Crime Fiction: A Reader’s Guide, Brit Noir and black americanand Andrew Gulli, editor of The strand mystery magazine.
Last Bus to Woodstock (1975)
Dexter began writing in 1972, creating a police detective with a passion for the arts whose intellect can be wasted on his job. Morse and his partner DS Lewis explore the death of a beaten girl outside an Oxford pub. The author “has endeavored to refine [this debut book] in a form he found pleasing,” says Forshaw. That said, “it immediately demonstrated that Dexter was an effortless master of detective fiction.”
Last Seen (1976)
Like most Morse stories, this one centers around a puzzle. “Someone is dead, but not exactly dead,” Gulli says. In fact, the deceased sends letters. Dexter’s second novel “firmly establishes his name as a writer who would one day be the heir to the detective novels of Raymond Chandler, Agatha Christie and John Dickson Carr,” Gulli adds. “Although his works could be described as literary puzzles, Dexter was more concerned with the ultimate enigma – the motivations of the human mind.”
The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn (1977)
Like his character Nicholas Quinn, Dexter became a school administrator after losing his hearing. Here, Quinn joins an ad hoc college committee where his profound deafness actually leads him to unearth a conspiracy. A prologue provides readers with clues Morse and Lewis don’t have as they investigate Quinn’s murder. “With all the books I’ve written, I always knew what was coming… I guess I have to be categorized as a whodunit writer rather than the genre that focuses on crime motivation,” said Dexter to Gulli for The strand.
Service of All the Dead (1979)
The novel is presented in four parts, each taken from a book of the Bible. Dexter tackles moral issues ranging from personal responsibility to protecting one’s reputation. “The formula with Dexter in his [writing] was that there was no formula,” says Gulli. “It’s one of my favourites, steeped in gothic atmosphere, betrayal and murder. And not just a good book, but instructive for budding writers. The Crime Writers Association in the UK awarded the fourth Dexter’s novel his Silver Dagger award.
Death of Jericho (1981)
Morse flirts with a woman he meets at a social event. When it later emerges that she committed suicide, the inspector’s mission is to prove that she was really murdered. Dexter’s fifth track “provides perhaps the most entertaining contrast between the ferociously analytical Morse and the sharper Lewis,” says Forshaw. Death of Jericho earned the author a second Silver Dagger Award from the Crime Writers Association.
The Riddle of the Third Mile (1983)
WWII Lt. Browne-Smith prevents a soldier from rescuing a comrade in a burning tank. “This is one of the most ambitious Morse [books]says Forshaw. “As [happens] so often in Dexter novels, an important action in the past has dangerous ramifications in the future. Jump to the 1980s, Browne-Smith is an Oxford professor who suddenly disappears after posting notes. “Fans of Charles Todd’s novels set during the Great War will appreciate the meticulous research Dexter has devoted to this fascinating and unsettling story,” adds Gulli.
The Secret of Annex 3 (1986)
Morse and Lewis explore a murder committed after a New Year’s costume party. With masquerades booked in the same hotel annex, the story is a “closed bedroom mystery”, which detectives must solve. This novel “is a favorite of many Colin Dexter admirers, and rightly so,” says Forshaw. It shows “a growing confidence in plot – always a specialty of the author, but now refined into something complex and ingenious”.
The Girl Is Dead (1989)
This novel won the Crime Writer’s Association’s Golden Dagger. Morse is hospitalized, recovering from an ulcer. Bedridden, he researches a crime he has heard about; a true story from 1859 about a woman who drowned in the Oxford Canal, her alleged attackers punished. “Here, Dexter used his own research on a real case,” Forshaw explains. “The retrospective structure of the book seems inspired by that of Joséphine Tey. The girl of time (1951)…[Dexter was] long aware of the debt he owed to his illustrious predecessors and [was] always ready to admit it.
The Jewel That Was Ours (1991)
A group of American tourists visit Oxford where one of them suffers a fatal heart attack in her hotel room. A priceless jewelry artifact that the woman was donating to a local museum is in her purse. Is there a connection when the group’s tour guide is murdered the next day? “The hell tour could be detrimental to Morse’s dyspeptic health (though he’s been known to ‘bottleneck’ his emotions),” Gulli says. “This novel brings chilling new meaning to the slogan ‘Experience Oxford’.”
The Path Through the Woods (1992)
Morse sees a strange newspaper post, which offers clues to find a Swedish student who disappeared from Oxford a year ago. The newspaper then publishes letters from those who attempt to interpret the clues. The inspector gets assigned to the case. “Not for the faint-hearted, but for fans of dark psychological thrillers [like those] by Ruth Rendell and Ruth Ware,” says Gulli. “One of the gems of the Colin Dexter canon,” adds Forshaw and indeed, Dexter won his second Crime Writers’ Association Golden Dagger for the title.
Daughters of Cain (1994)
Sickly and contemplating retirement, Morse and the ever-reliable Lewis inherit an open case involving the stabbing death of an Oxford professor; no weapons have yet been found or suspects identified. When they uncover startling information about the victim, the result is too suspects. “In vintage Dexter style, you wonder how this master of detective fiction could have cheated you for what seems like the umpteenth time,” says Gulli.
Death Is Now My Neighbor (1996)
A young woman is shot through a window in her home and may be an accidental victim. Morse and Lewis investigate, but what really matters here is the harrowing relationship between them, especially as Morse’s physical ailments become difficult. And “hooray, we finally discovered Morse’s first name”, adds Gulli. At the end of the novel, Morse sends Lewis a note, signed with his full name. One year after the publication of this 12e novel, Dexter received the Crime Writer’s Association’s Lifetime Achievement Recognition, the Diamond Dagger.
The Day of Remorse (1999)
In this latest Morse code novel, our detective doggedly hesitates to investigate the murder of a supposedly promiscuous nurse. Lewis wonders if his boss is somehow connected to the victim. “By then…Dexter had openly admitted he was growing tired of the character, à la Conan Doyle and Holmes,” Forshaw says, and he “brought the show to a climax.” Dexter “always said he couldn’t imagine what any other writer would do to Morse if he [himself] didn’t finish it,” adds Gulli.