Inspector Morse is one of Britain's most successful literary television adaptations. I first watched it while grieving for my father, and will always associate it with that timeby Jason Cowley / May 26, 2007 / Leave a comment
Memories of Morse
I watched Inspector Morse for the first time shortly after my father died suddenly in January 1991. In those stunned, time-slowed days that followed his death, as visitors came and went from the house in mournful procession, I found myself at a loss as to what to do—I certainly had no desire to read or to work, and yet the days stretched before me, empty and long. It was then, one evening, that I chanced upon an episode of Inspector Morse, called “The Ghost in the Machine”; I guess I was intrigued as much by the Cartesian title as anything else. It featured a wintry Patricia Hodge as an unhappy big-house aristocrat who, assisted by her lover, an old Harrovian dropout, enacts a macabre revenge on the husband who has cruelly neglected her for many years. Lord Hanbury is impotent. He and his wife sleep in separate rooms and, when he is not scheming to become master of an Oxford college, he works in an attic room on erotic portraits of the family au pair. These naturally disgust his wife.
There was something about the atmosphere of the piece and the melancholy of the central character—the great Morse himself, as played by John Thaw—that fitted my mood; something sad and escapist about it all, like reading an AE Housman poem. From then, I watched Morse whenever I could and sought out the original novels by Colin Dexter (he published 13 in all, the first—Last Bus to Woodstock—in 1975).
The books are quite different from their television adaptations: more low-toned, less grandly languorous—rather conventional whodunits, in fact, in the classical English tradition of Agatha Christie, in which an intellectual puzzle is posed and, after a long parade of suspects and many wrong turns, resolution happily reached. There is little of the politics or social commentary in Dexter that you find in the detective fiction of PD James, and none of the misanthropy that is such a feature of the high-tech American crime fiction of Thomas Harris and James Ellroy.
There are also differences of detail between the novels and the adaptations. Morse’s partner Lewis is a middle-aged Welshman in the books rather than the naive and amiable Geordie portrayed by Kevin Wheatley, and Morse drives a battered old Lancia, not a maroon vintage Jaguar. What is…