Interview with Colin Dexter
A Conversation with...Colin Dexter (and PC)
Among the clientele in the bar of the Randolph Hotel in Oxford was a solitary gentleman sitting, contentedly, pen in one hand, a copy of The Times in the other. He worked away diligently at the crossword puzzle pausing occasionally to merely wet his lips with his drink. The female bar staff were discreetly making a fuss over him, all charmed by his warm generous smile. Two of them appeared genuinely fond of him and anxious to mother him.
I swear to you, I half expected that were I to look out the bar window I'd see a maroon XJ 6 Jaguar, parking and DS Lewis, some vital information in hand, would briskly walk into the bar. If this scene were true to form Lewis wouldn't be encouraged to impart his valuable information until he'd stood a round of drinks. The gentleman using the few minutes to expertly, not to mention, dexterously, complete the crossword puzzle. Next he'd would ensure, with merely a glance, that Lewis held his council for a few precious minutes longer while he, Chief Inspector Endeavour Morse, the nations favourite detective, would savor the first few drops of his precious drink.
However it wasn't Lewis' who pulled up outside the Randolph Hotel on that sunny summer morning; it was myself and, sadly, my carriage wasn't the maroon jag with a 248 PRA number plate. No, it was a black cab driven by grumpy cabbie who spent the entire journey complaining about Oxford Council and how messed up their new traffic system was. I couldn't quite figure out if he was more annoyed at the fact that all his journeys would now take at least double the time (surely worth twice the fare) or at the fact that the council had (allegedly) spent twenty million pounds getting the system so wrong.
The well respected gentleman waiting for me in the bar of The Randolph Hotel wasn't, of course, Morse but his creator, Colin Dexter, and we were meeting here, in one of his favourite locations, to chat about all things detective to mark the publication of his fourteenth and (positively) final Morse book, The Remorseful Day. It was Colin Dexter who polished off the crossword puzzle as I attended Lewis' regular duty and visited the bar.
"A profit is without honour in his own land in his own time." is not a saying that applies to either Colin Dexter or Oxford Town where he is a much loved and highly cherished man. The aforementioned bar staff continued to fuss over him, in the nicest possible way you understand, and he had time and good manners for them all, even fitting in autograph requests. He's what Leonard Cohen would call, "A ladies man". Yes, he may be closing down his seventieth year but, like Morse, women positively swoon over him.
Born in Stamford on 29th September 1930 he was christened Norman Colin Dexter. His father was a cab driver and he undertook his national service during 1949 and 1950 before entering University where he won his B.A. in 1953 and his M.A. in 1958. He was a teacher until 1966 when he gave up his role of senior classics master in Corby to become assistant secretary of the Oxford Local Examinations Board becoming Senior Assistant Secretary in 1978 a post he held until his retirement in 1987. A Former National Crossword Champion, Colin Dexter has won the Crime Writers' Association Silver Dagger Award (twice) and the Gold Dagger Award (twice). He co-wrote a couple of educational books before writing his first Morse story in 1973 (Last Bus to Woodstock published in 1975)
Using the extraordinary Morse character as a backbone Colin Dexter has written a magnificent series of novels revealing a consistent high quality not witnessed since the likes of Agatha Christie or Arthur Conan Doyle. By his own admission his books fall into the "whodunit" category. Each of them a puzzle with numerous twist turns and red herrings and, all, with a moral issue lingering not too far from the surface. Mistaken-identity, a vast array of plausible suspects, honesty with his readers, and sleight of hand are his constant companions. With Morse and Lewis and, in later years, Strange, he has created a loveable, vulnerable and highly believable cast of characters. Over the years, as is often the case with good friends, we have grown to know his Oxford troop better, accepting their faults and admiring their qualities. He has, at the same time, very successfully resisted giving away too much on Morse knowing the detective's mystery is also a major part of his attraction. He has only once broken his golden rule about allowing television to reveal too much of Morse's background. He immediately regretted it and, since that single occasion, has never agreed disclosing more than is in the books.
Colin Dexter once said that he, "was just as anxious for the detective to manage without the pathology lab as for the crossword puzzler to manage without a dictionary." This pretty much sums up Morse's approach to his work and gives us, in general terms, an accurate sense to the feel of the books.
Fresh drinks in hand, Colin Dexter and myself retreat to a quieter corner of the bar to begin our chat. Colin had a different, if somewhat bemused, slant on the current traffic problem and the twenty million pound budget, 'Don't you see it's given to a lot of local employment,' he began impishly, "Five hundred people come along and dig a hole. The following day they come along and fill it in."
We start at the beginning, the origins of Last Bus to Woodstock, and although it's a story he must had told thousands of time he still recalls it with such enthusiasm.
'I remember it well; we were in a guesthouse. This would have been the early seventies and we'd two children. There's nothing worse really than being in a guesthouse with nothing to do, raining outside. And as you know it's not unknown for it to rain in North Wales. I got fed up with the weather. I know there were two detective stories there, in the house. I read them, you know, nothing else to do. I didn't think they were very marvelous and it suddenly occurred to me that I couldn't do all that much worse. And although I had written a couple of other books, I wasn't unused to writing. And I remember I sat down at the kitchen table, I didn't write more than three or four paragraphs. But I mean that's the thing isn't it, I bet you've discovered with writing, haven't you, that the thing to doyou never want to wait for the Almighty to whisper in your earjust put something down on the page! It doesn't matter how bad it is.'
Colin Dexter is in full flow now and he paused only for nods of agreement from myself before continuing,
'I sometimes think, you know, that these people who try to teach people how to write... I mean what you want to do is to encourage people to write a load of rubbish. If people said to themselves, "Now I'm going to write something and I'm going to try ever so hard to write the worst sentence ever written." Because as soon as you've got something down on the page then you can say, "I know it's bloody awful." If you've got ... perhaps, not quite, the lousiest paragraph ever written ... you can say, "Well I'll change this word and that word and put a full stop in and spell a few words correctly and try a bit harder." But you can't ... unless there's something there. If you've got a blank page in front of you, it's no good is it? You can't take off anywhere. But you can take off from something; the biggest rubbish in the world you can take off from. And oddly enough after a hour or two, or a day or two, a week or two perhaps, it's never quite so bad as you thought. And you can say it's there, it's there!
'But as soon as you do get something down, how ever much nonsense you write, suddenly you get people coming in, and you get people talking, and when people get talking they say something and they imply something and then they reply to something, it puts you into it. You've got a texture of event and conversation, a potential accident, that almost works itself; so long as you've got this original piece down on paper.' he pauses for another sip from his glass.
'So you did your original couple of paragraphs?' I say, posting a marker.
'Not much more, maybe a page and a half, but nothing more. I remember it was up here, up the Woodstock Road, a girl hitch-hiking and I thought this could be the start of a story and that was it really. And then I thought to myself, when I got home, I'll keep that in mind and think about it. I'm an old-fashioned whodunit writer; I'll want to know what happens at the finish. I'll want to know, "This is what's going to happen, one of those girls is going to be murdered and the other one is going to..." and it all works out. Then I thought if that's the end all I've got to do is the middle. For me it's like I was in Oxford and I was going to go up to Edinburgh, that's where the last chapter is, and I had to find out how I was going to get there, up the A1, the M6 the M1? I think except for one book I always knew exactly what was going to happen, it might have changed a bit, but not much. So for the next eighteen months or so I wrote a page or two here and there, weekends. But as I often say if you write one page a day, you're going to write 360 a year, and most publishers of crime stories they'd rather you wrote 300 than 500.'
He then thought for a few seconds, smiled and said, 'What are your books, 500?' and broke into a hearty laugh. When I assured him my efforts were all in the mid two hundreds he recalled a story about being asked to review a book, a 900 page book on Oxford.
'I asked them when they wanted the review by. They said, "A fortnight on Tuesday." I said, "If I took every minute of every day I'd never do it. I'm a very slow reader."' he drew the word "slow" out for a few seconds as if the emphasise the point. 'I said, "Forget it, forget it!" I think most crime books are between 250 to 350.'
As we sat talking in the Randolph I could see (and hear) in Colin Dexter one of Morse's main traits shinning through; his ability to go off and work on tangents. Like Morse he explores the tangents thoroughly but always has the ability to return to his original thread, sometimes even via another tangent. In Morse's case this gives his creator the opportunity to take the reader on various wild, but always delightfully entertaining, goose chases. In that morning's instance with Colin Dexter he was unwittingly, as entertaining and enlightening in his narrative as he is in his approach to his writing. His next detour, while still discussing the writing and publishing of his first book, was about how Morse, on television, had influence his approach to writing.
'The biggest influence on me has been writing shorter chapters. It's put me on to shorter chapters.'
I love reading short chapters; I love (even more) writing short chapters. I live my life in short chapters, so this was manna to my ears, apparently his brother as well.
'I've got a brother who tells me that he thinks I'm the greatest writer in the world because I write the shortest chapters of anybody he knows. He'll go to bed and he says he can almost read one full chapter before he falls asleep, you know it's only about two or three pages. And I think you'll find yourself that when you find your work chopped up into distinctive, distinct, discreet individual bits you'll think to yourself, you know, that's effectively, economically succinctly done, and I can do that. Whereas if you read, I mean a novel by George Elliot or something, or Henry James and you get twenty pages or close lines, nobody's talking. But if you do get somebody talking, it's much better isn't it. If you've got a great wad of prose and then someone says, "Hello" then you get a great big white bit, don't you? Right? And then somebody on the next line says, "Hello" and you get another big white bit. So that's instead of another twelve words. So you get, "Hello", "Hello", "How are you?", "Okay." and you go down and you feel you're making progress. But some of this dense prose however good or bad, I mean on television, it puts me off a bit. Because with description on the telly you can do in two seconds what would take pages. On telly a lot of it's taken care of with the camera. And the other thing you've got of course is music. That's been a big factor in the Morse series. The book can'twith the best will in the worldyou can talk about music but you don't want it to be obtrusive or do it all the time. I think if it's done sensitively, certainly thematically, to some particular scene. We had it thematically on a driving scene with Ella Fitzgerald and that was very well done. A murderer, you just saw his hand and while he was looking at his next prospective victim he turned and you saw the Ella Fitzgerald tape that he had and this was very interesting in itself, let alone atmospheric. Forget Morse let's have Ella Fitzgerald.' Again Colin Dexter breaks into his infectious laugh. 'But you can't do that on the page. So this is where you're in the hands of good directors.'
'Going back to the first book,' I said taking the opportunity of a natural break to find out some more about the writing of Last Bus to Woodstock, first published in 1975 and now in an incredible twenty-second imprint, 'After you returned from your holiday, you know with your first few pages, was it at that point you started to develop Morse and Lewis, you know, build their characters?'
'Yes. I've still got the manuscript of that. My wife chucked out the next three manuscripts. I always write in long hand, but I've still got the manuscript of Last Bus to Woodstock. I got it typed, sent it to a publisher. Somebody said to me thatwell I'm sure you'd the same experience. I've written a book, which is absolutely marvelous, everybody will want this, it'll sell like hotcakes and ... all these old clichesand somebody said to me, here are the top three publishers. They said, Collins, Gollanczdo your remember Gollancz with the yellow back? and Macmillan. And I sent it to Collins. They kept it such a long time. Certainly more than five months and in the finish I wrote and said, "You know, look you've had it a long time and I've only got the one copy." So I said, "Send it back" And they did, send it back to me with a critique. I think it was one of the best critiques of a book I've ever had. They made some very good points. You know it depresses you a bit whenever somebody says, you know when you write something, "Very interesting and very good, we can't publish it and if you ever write anything else bear in mind some of the things we said." Somebody, in the meantime, during this long, long period, Collins were the great crime publishers then, they're not now, they don't have much of a link up with paperback you see, so very important. But somebody had said to me Gollancz were going down, Gollancz don't produce the yellow jackets any more. That was a wonderful idea, the yellow jackets. But somebody said to me that Macmillan are coming up on the rails and a man called Lord Hardinge of Penshurst, so when I got my manuscript back from Collins and I didn't change a comma, I just packed it up again and sent it off to Lord Hardinge and he rang me up as soon as he read it. He'd been in bed with the flu at the time and I've always said that might well have been the biggest piece of luck of all; it might have affected his judgement. He said, "I'm going to publish it warts and all. Come up and see me as soon as you can. I took the Monday after that off and went up to see him and he said, "That's it", and he didn't want anything changed at all. He said, "Leave it as it is, I enjoyed it." And that was the difference between five months and twenty-four hours. And it's who it is, it's not whether it good or bad, it's whether it appeals to someone.'
I was interested in whether or not he wrote to a deadline, under the pressure of a publishing date as it were, or just wrote until he'd a complete book and then did something with it.
'I've got a book coming out in September. I didn't write for a long time you know. In fact a year ago I thought, well...' Colin Dexter stops mid sentence perhaps implying he'd already stopped writing. He regains his thread and continues, 'They bully you a bit you know. They say, "You're not writing at all?" you know, and, "Ah, come on". And I've never had any deadline. I tried very hard though at the beginning of last year, January, February, March, I wasn't abroad but I did write quite hard then. In the summer I was always abroad and then in September, September, October, November, December, January, February (this year)...' Colin Dexter generated a wry smile across my face with that one, using his famous brackets for the first time, he continued unaware, 'I really pushed myself, I mean two hours, two and a half hours every day, however busy I was. And two hours for me is quite enough to write. I mean if you're really getting down to it and putting something down. It's like we said, it doesn't matter as long as you say, "No, no keep going, keep going, just write something down." I'd given myself a deadline then, the beginning of April. In fact I finished it early March but it took too much out of me. I don't have any deadline apart from the personal discipline of sometimes saying, "I am going to push this." And I did with the last book, and this is the last book.'
'Morse would be about 67 now wouldn't he?' I suggested, perhaps as a possible reason for The Remorseful Day, sadly being the final volume.
'Say he was notionally forty in 1973 when I wrote the first book, that twenty six years ago, so he's going to be almost seventy now and most policemen are going to finish at fifty, or early in their fifties, they don't let them stay. I don't know how old Poirot was, he was about 110, I think!' again he breaks into a fit of laughter, 'But this doesn't matter in a way, but when you localise things, as I've done in Oxford, with a particular character and you stick him in a particular series of scenes which are quite clearly in the seventies, and then you suddenly come to the nineties and you suddenly come to the millennium, and you think, Christ he's not still in the force!'
'Would you consider doing a non- Morse story?' I ask hoping The Remorseful Day won't be the final novel from Colin Dexter.
'I shan't write another detective story. I think it's nice if sometimes you feel, you know, nothing is calling for action. Writing's a difficult and a lonely and a tiring business, isn't it don't you find?'
I tell him how much I enjoy it and the space you find yourself in while writing, he immediately agrees, 'There's nothing quite so satisfying, you're quite right. And yet getting to that feeling, of doing something, creatively so to speak, it takes quite a big effort, doesn't it? You sit there and sometimes it's okay and sometimes it's bloody hard, don't you find?'
We then discuss about waiting so long to get published and having lots of ideas floating around in your head that you are desperate to get out.
'Do you remember what Keats said about, you know, "When I have fears that I may cease to be, all my pen has gleaned this teaming brain." All he had to do was say give me a charge, give me a pen and he'd all these ideas running around and sometime he was frightened that he was going to die before, "I've got all these things, all these gold nuggets".' He then repeats the line from Keats' sonnet and adds, deadpan, 'Then of course he died when he was twenty-four, and he hadn't gleaned much at all!'
I asked him which of the non-Colin Dexter originated Morse TV stories he enjoyed the most.
'Well there were two lots, there were a few in which I had virtually nothing except a discussion and an awful lot in which I had written the plots. Not an awful lot, I mean there's been thirty-two Morses haven't there? But I know that in series three and four that I had written fairly extensive (too extensive really) plots. And then there were others, like Australia, where we just sat and said, "Why don't we have a supergrass there?" in the vaguest of terms just talking about the possibilities. But I think that of the ones, apart from those, I think it was Danny Boyle's, I think it was called Second Time Around. Very clever and very moving. Morse had discovered the body of a young girl. I think she was the daughter of a police officer and Morse was on the scene and there was an awful lot of nastiness between them. And the finish... a very moving finish. Very, very good I thought. And what we were talking about earlier, the genius of television for doing things that others aren't I thought that ... Julian Mitchell's got a wonderful visual imagination. I know that in the one we did in Australia, I thought that the ending of that was brilliantly done. Some people didn't like the Australian one because Morse was out of Oxford and Lewis took much more ... of whatever it was. But Morse had lost his tickets for the opera and then he found them and he was walking up the steps and everybody else was walking down, I don't know how many takes it took. Rose and Cabelier is not my favourite opera, particularly the middle act, but the last three or four minutes, with the Marshall and so on, in the background with Morse walking up with his tickets and the music and everybody coming down, I thought that was, you know, not imagined at all from my book. I thought that was wonderfully clever. And visually, again I think it was Julian Mitchell, I wrote a book called, The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn, when Morse wants to go to see this porn film at Walton Street, and he was off the day before. So, Lewis says, no he doesn't want to watch this. So Morse says, "You drop me there, I go in and watch it" Beautiful large breasted Swedish porn star and Morse gets out of the car outside the cinema and One Hundred and One Damnations is on instead. And that wasn't me. These are things that come from other people, for which I am enormously grateful but again it like we were saying earlier, it's when you do something, like writing, get a scene, get people talking, get people doing things that these other things happen. Now in Julian's mind, in the book they (Morse and Lewis) both see the film together and Julian's read that and said that's the book... but what if?'
Next he told me that The Secret of Annex Three hadn't been made into a Morse TV show, apart from one piece which was used in the Secret of Bay 3, because of the snow scene and it would have been too expensive to stage. He also felt, in that instance he'd been trying to write visually and felt that he shouldn't. It's one of my favourites of the Morse books and I got the feeling he felt it was perhaps a little underrated meaning that he was probably quite proud of it, but not proudest.
'People have often said to me, "Which is your favourite one?" I don't know, I think the best book I ever wrote probably was The Dead of Jericho. But you see, that was filmed ... Anthony Minghella did the film script for that and he's a brilliant man but the story didn't come over all that marvelously and the reason was that it was exactly what television couldn't do. It was all based on the confusion of pronouns. And you can't do it on television. Anthony did a marvelous job. I don't think anyone could have made absolutely clear what the story was. That was certainly, in my estimation, the best book as a book.'
'Even including the new one?' I venture, moving on to talk about the new book. Well actually I move on to talk about the new book. Colin Dexter's not saying much about it. Neither is his publisher. The angle seems to be, "Whatever happens to the white haired one in the final novel?" In the previous book, Death Is Now My Neighbour they had their publicity hook ready made with the fact the author was going to reveal, for the first time, Morse's Christian name, Endeavour. And what a media frenzy that created. They even managed to capture a spot on ITV's News at Ten. The book shot to the top of the bestseller list, selling 120,000 odd in the first four weeks in the UK!
Now even The Sunday Times is carrying three quarter page stories about various possible endings. Colin Dexter as an interviewee is as brave as Colin Dexter the author. As in the books, where he's not afraid of parading the real suspect in front of you at the earliest opportunity and planting the clues right there before your very eyes, in the interview he brings up the possible endings.
'So it's going to leave everybody in doubt as to what's going to happen. So I'm not going to say anything. I think everyone wants him to get married, or die, have an accident or have a last quarrel with his senior personnel at Kidlington Police HQ.'
'They've been getting a lot closer in the recent books.' I try, suggesting that from Superintendent Strange's perspective this is natural, he's gone as far up the ladder as he can go so it's logical he would look back down at those (Morse) below him. But for Morse the new relationship is not as logical, unless of course he's mellowing in his old age. I'm not so sure we want to see the old boy stand his round in the pub.
'It's really an awful lot about Morse and Strange, you know.' he offers, apparently prepared to reveal something about The Remorseful Day. Suddenly he seems to change tact mid-flow and starts to talk about the actor who plays Strange in the TV series, 'Jimmy Grout ... wonderful man. He and John (Thaw) have known each other a long time, they were on stage together in the early days in the west end. And I think that Kevin will be available for this one. Everyone seems to be very keen to make it for the millennium, I don't know how the millennium, thought, is going to fit in all the things they want to make for it.'
' "The blabbing and remorseful day is crept into the bosom of the sea" from Shakespeare's Henry the Sixth, not the best known quotation from Shakespeare, but A.E. Houseman knew it and I think he quoted it. But I decided that I wouldn't quote it from Shakespeare but from Houseman because he's always been my favourite poet, and with all the Oxford connections and classics connections and I quote the verse at the beginning and it got the nice playful element of Morse in the middle, "And ensanguining the skies, lies into the west away," the last line of the poem.
By the time this interview is in print the book will have been published and the mystery revealed. But, as I say, Colin Dexter was giving lots away, or was he? He did hint at a Agatha Christie type twist and if we focus on the Shakespeare quote I would guess that Morse retires, marries, babbles away into the sunset with Strange. Lewis, meanwhile, probably gains, with the help of Morse and Strange, promotion.
Either way it matters not a lot where he takes it. All that matters is that pretty soon we'll have another Morse tale from our greatest storyteller and for that we should be thankful. As the beginning and the end both come from Dexter's pen at least we're assured Morse won't fall to his death in a waterfall only to miraculously reappear in a future novel.
I ask him if he's happy to leave Morse...
'I've written enough. I think, including the short stories, this is number 14. I feel I've said enough about him. I think, in a way, you know there are certain characteristics, as there are with your chief fellow and you play on them a bit, and you change them and you repeat them. And people get older. I feel, as I've said, there's been a lot of corpses, a lot of people have been killed, a lot of talk about poets and Wagner and beer and crosswords. And I just feel that there's been enough said and you can't go on, well you can go on but there comes a point when you say, "That's it. I think that's enough about this man." And say if you do get the luck of it being committed to television with a great group: producer; director; actors; executive producer like Ted Childs then you have to say, don't you, "The Gods have been kind."'
You have to agree with him, don't you? I mean the Gods have been kind in giving us Colin Dexter and his peerless body of work. Unlike Christie and Doyle we shouldn't wait for years to accept him as a national treasure. Personally speaking I think he should be Knighted immediately, he should appear on the Parkinson Show, the final book should be made into a big- screen feature film, and I think the next time Oxford Council find themselves with twenty million pounds to spare they would be much better spending some of it giving out copies of the Morse books on the rates.
This interview first appeared in Shots In The Dark magazine