Crime writer Colin Dexter has become inextricably linked with the city of Oxford, where his bestselling Inspector Morse novels are set. So it is interesting to discover that he went to university at Cambridge. More than that, he didn’t get round even to visiting Oxford until the late 1950s, when he went to meet the later-to-be-disgraced media tycoon Robert Maxwell.
Back then, Dexter was a classics teacher in Corby, Northamptonshire, while Maxwell was the boss of Pergamon Press, a specialist academic publisher. “We met up to discuss my writing a few textbooks for him, which I duly did,” says Dexter, who recently turned 80. “Even if he did turn out to be a crookster, he was always very kind to me.”
In 1966, partial deafness forced Dexter to leave the teaching profession, and he moved to Oxford with his wife Dorothy and their two children to become a senior administrator for the university’s examinations board. A few years later, in 1973, the family moved into a four-bedroom semi-detached house north of the city centre. “It cost £17,000, if my memory serves me correctly,” Dexter recalls. He has lived there ever since.
You don’t have to be Morse to work out what attracted Dexter to this part of the city. “It’s what dear old John Thaw [the late actor who played Morse in the long-running TV adaptation] used to call ‘leafy north Oxford,’ ” he observes.
The most striking thing about Dexter’s home is how modest it is for someone who’s sold 4m books in the UK alone and had his work translated into 29 languages. Built in 1928, the property is typical of the smart “semis” that sprung up along arterial roads leading out of English towns in the 1920s and 1930s.
“We got central heating put in when we first moved in, and we had a patio built on the street side of the house, but we haven’t done very much otherwise,” says Dexter, adding with a chuckle: “We’re a bit stick in the mud-ish.”
Consequently, the house has something of a period feel to it. The dining room sideboard appears to have been bought in the 1970s. The kitchen also feels a little old-fashioned by today’s standards. If a new owner were to move in today, they might be tempted to knock down interior walls and refurbish from top to bottom. But that would involve stripping the house of its lived-in charm – and its history. For this is where one of the greatest literary detectives of modern times took shape.
“I wrote the first couple of Morse books when our children were still at home – at the dining room table downstairs,” Dexter says. The rest were produced in the little upstairs bedroom turned study where he is sitting now. “This room is rather special to me,” he says. “I’ve spent so much time here. I still come up here every evening and listen to music for an hour.”
Floor-to-ceiling shelves lined with books cover two sides of the room. Authors represented include Dexter’s great hero, the poet AE Housman, Charles Dickens, JM Barrie and Raymond Chandler. Below the study window is the modest back garden with its bright green lawn and wall of conifers screening the houses behind. “I’ve always been a lawn man, rather than a flower man. I’ve always loved green, green grass, beautifully kept,” Dexter says.
“I’ve written 19 books in all and I haven’t touched a typewriter, let alone a computer key, in all that time. I wrote them all out in longhand on ruled paper using a blue Biro. Then I got them typed up by a dear old lady down the road. She was very good even if some of the pages were smeared with red nail varnish.”
For a long time, the hours Dexter could devote to writing were limited by his day job. “It was quite demanding, I even had to work Saturday mornings, so I’d usually write for an hour or so after The Archers [the long-running BBC Radio 4 soap opera] each night, do about 300 words, and then go down to the pub for a couple of pints. It’s amazing how, if you keep going, you accumulate an awful lot of paper.”
The first publisher that he approached, in 1975, turned down the original Morse book, Last Bus to Woodstock. But a second snapped it up. A dozen years later, the books were turned into the equally successful television series.
Like his creator, Inspector Morse enjoys listening to classical music, doing crosswords and drinking real ale. Contrary to what some people think, the character wasn’t inspired by Dexter’s time as a Morse code operator in the services. Rather, he was named after the former chairman of Lloyds Bank, Jeremy Morse: “The cleverest man I ever met, a lovely man,” he says.
Dexter killed off Morse in his 1999 novel The Remorseful Day (though the detective’s sidekick Lewis has his own TV series). But he continues to write: his most recent book is a guide to doing cryptic crosswords.
“I’ve been doing them ever since my schooldays,” he says. “It was like opening the door on a whole new world.
“They are a constant reminder of how marvellously flexible and malleable the English language is. It’s harder to fiddle around with French or German in the way that you can with English, and that’s one reason for the success of the cryptic crossword in the English-speaking world.”
In contrast, he has little interest in sudoku puzzles. “Dorothy does them, but you can’t tell your friends about a great clue in the way that you can with a crossword,” he says, adding wryly: “Crosswords are the most serene and wonderful way of wasting your time.”
For all the money Dexter has made from his books, he remains a modest man and has never been tempted to buy a big house in the country or a holiday home somewhere exotic. “I could have gone anywhere, I suppose, but Oxford is one of the most beautiful cities, not just in the UK but in the world. So the idea of moving has never ever crossed my mind,” he says. “Why would I want to move, especially when there’s a bus stop just down the road, and I can get into the centre of town so easily? Besides, I’ve never been much interested in joining ‘the yachting brigade’.”
Colin Dexter’s ‘Cracking Cryptic Crosswords’ is published by Offox Press, £7.99