Re-reading the Inspector Morse books in order, most readers will be conscious of a definite datedness not only to the style, but to the portrayal of the characters of both Morse and his long-suffering foil, Sergeant Lewis. It is odd to think that these books were the genesis of the popular ITV series and all that has come after it. Despite, for example, the jackets of the American editions from Bantam Books (republished at the end of the ’80s to coincide with the original broadcasts of the John Thaw / Kevin Whately adaptions show on PBS “Mystery!”) proclaiming Morse’s fondness for T.S. Eliot and classical music, very little of either are evident in the first three books (and as far as I recall, Eliot never gets a mention, making him as a choice of poets somewhat odd – too modern for Morse’s taste?).
So the books are different from the television adaptations. What is the same is that Morse is a difficult character to like, yet he often, through the sympathetic views of others, is made to feel likable. While these three books are very definitely products of the 1970s, the broadcast series from the 1980s has a particular light, a particular sense of Oxford that the books simply don’t convey. Less of the dreaming spires, more of the grotty estates and vulgar motorways. It is as though Dexter took Oxford as read (which no doubt he did), but forgot that the reader might live further afield than Abingdon. Or Didcot.
The story in either version is largely unchanged. At the Foreign Examinations Syndicate, a recently-hired hearing-impaired employee, Nicholas Quinn, leaves the building at the end of the working day on a Friday, and doesn’t return to work. When another member of staff, Donald Martin, goes to check on him, he finds Quinn mysteriously dead, and Chief Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis are thrust into the strange world of the examinations which determine who can come to study at Oxford, and who cannot. Gradually, discrepancies emerge in witness testimonies, but no one seems to know when Quinn was killed, only that he was present at the regularly scheduled fire drill the Friday before, and was seen to drive off after the Syndicate closed. Will Morse get hold of the wrong end of things – again? Of course he will.
If you come to Nicholas Quinn’s untimely demise via the television series, you will find the details changed, somewhat. Some extraneous and seemingly unnecessary red herrings in the book were excised from the filmed version, and the narrative considerably tightened up. Indeed, some of the dialogue in the book is almost word-for-word identical to the transmitted version. Several of the male characters are described as “bearded,”, but this was not maintained for the television version of the clean-shaven late 1980s. The film showing at the theatre has been changed, to the apparently fictive Nymphomanic, rather than ITV’s use of Last Tango in Paris. Dexter’s imagination seems somewhat more salacious, perhaps as a product of the time?
Reading through the first books, it occurs to me that I haven’t really enjoyed any of the first three thus far, but with The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn, I’ve come the closest yet. It has been something that I’ve read more as a student, in an almost archaeological search for the difference between printed and filmed versions. That isn’t to say that as books they’re not worth reading, but they perhaps demonstrate how high the standard of the broadcast programme really was. If you can empty your mind of the baggage of Thaw’s characterization (and excellent baggage it is), you may enjoy these books somewhat more, but I cannot see anyone being genuinely entranced by them. That element of Dexter’s storytelling was still to come.
Originally reviewed 22 May 2015.
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