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Case Book: A Detective's Last Case

Finding the Perfect Exit for a Great Detective
By Ron Miller

In The Remorseful Day, the final chapter in the long career of Chief Inspector Morse, the grand old man of MYSTERY! enjoys the sort of wistful, affectionate sendoff that every great detective might envy.

Well, perhaps "enjoys" isn't quite the proper word, considering Morse neither gets to toast this special occasion with a glass of beer nor wave good-bye over a rousing Wagnerian chorus. In fact, Morse really isn't feeling all that well when the final curtain falls.

Remorseful Day author Colin Dexter, whose novel was adapted for the TV finale of MYSTERY!, clearly wanted Morse to leave totally in character, without putting his fans through the ordeal of excessive keening and wailing. Morse hates that sort of thing.

Rather than turn the final Morse into some kind of holy tribute, Dexter chose instead to air just a bit more of the old boy's dirty laundry. Morse becomes the object of suspicion in his final case -- the gruesomely kinky murder of Yvonne Harrison, a frolicsome nurse Morse is romancing. He is so smitten that one of his love letters nearly winds up in the official evidence bag.

Even if Morse does cover up his involvement somewhat with the murdered lady, we fans certainly know he couldn't have committed the crime. That's because we've seen the squeamish Morse lose his lunch so many times at murder scenes -- not exactly modus operandi for a cold-blooded killer.

Still, the coincidence gives the mischievous Dexter an excuse to play a familiar refrain -- the one about how unlucky Morse always was when it came to picking the women in his life.

Dexter has always had lots of fun exposing Morse's vulnerability, starting with his unfulfilled longing to be some poor woman's husband. Morse is much too fussy and cranky to be put up with by any normal woman, so Dexter wisely dodges any thought of sending the old boy off to retirement as a married man. Instead, he maintains the integrity of this brilliant and beloved character, even if it means putting him in an embarrassing jam just when Sergeant Lewis, Superintendent Strange, and the rest of us are feeling more than a little sad.

It seems to me Dexter strikes just the right tone with his farewell to Morse. That isn't easy. Finding the right way to say good-bye to a great detective character has troubled so many masters of mystery that very few have actually done it.

Some mystery writers simply can't bring themselves to "wrap up" a favorite character. Not long ago I asked Robert B. Parker, creator of the long-running Spenser mysteries, if he'll write a finale when the time comes. His answer: "No. His end will be coincidental with mine."

But if there's a standard reason why writers don't "finish off" their heroes, this is surely it: It's bad for business.

That attitude probably dates back to the late 19th century, when Arthur Conan Doyle grew tired of writing Sherlock Holmes stories and killed Holmes off in a fight to the death with Professor Moriarty. There was so much public outrage at Holmes's death that Doyle realized he'd better find a way for Holmes to survive that struggle at the Reichenbach Falls if he wanted to continue making a living as a writer.

In 1917, Doyle once more tried to say good-bye to Sherlock in His Last Bow, which involved Holmes in World War I espionage. Doyle even wrote a scene in which Sherlock poignantly tells Dr. Watson: "Stand with me here upon the terrace, for it may be the last quiet talk that we shall ever have."

But once burned, Doyle resisted the temptation to have somebody pronounce Holmes dead. And sure enough, he went back to writing more stories and didn't stop until 1927 -- three years before his own death. In the final story, The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place, a robust Holmes delivers his final line: "It is nearly midnight, Watson, and I think we may make our way back to our humble abode."

Today, mystery writers with popular characters like Morse realize many others now have a stake in them, including agents, publishers, networks, and movie studios. They're constantly advised against killing them off for fear it will derail the gravy train.

But some authors, like Dexter, just don't like leaving loose ends behind. They want to finish the hero's life story themselves, not risk the possibility that somebody else might do it after they're gone.

That's why Agatha Christie decided to write Curtain, the finale for her master detective, Hercule Poirot. Like Conan Doyle, Christie had grown tired of her hero, but knew he was still "good business." So in the mid-1940s, she wrote the novel in which Poirot dies, then put it away until 1975, when her own health had deteriorated badly. (Christie died in 1976, after Curtain had become a best-seller.)

Curtain could be the model for all career-ending detective mysteries. It surely must have influenced Dexter, a lifelong Christie admirer. In the novel, Christie rang all the bells Poirot fans needed to hear. She showed him in advanced old age, ailing and confined to a wheelchair, but still with his "little gray cells" functioning well enough to solve his final mystery. She also reunited him with his old sidekick, Hastings, and brought them both full circle to the very scene of their first adventure: Styles Court, setting for Christie's first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles.

Christie wanted to write her own epitaph for Poirot, which she did in his final message to Hastings: "We shall not hunt together again, my friend.... They were good days. Yes, they have been good days."

Dexter's epitaph for Morse is equally poignant. In the final paragraphs of The Remorseful Day, Chief Superintendent Strange startles Sergeant Lewis by revealing one last noble act by Morse. Then, as if speaking for Dexter to all the Morse fans around the world, he adds, "So just keep thinking well of him, Lewis -- that's all I ask."

More on Morse:
Inspector Morse Series 10
Inspector Morse Series 11
Inspector Morse Series 12
The Remorseful Day: The Inspector Morse Finale
The Last Morse: A Documentary
The Detectives: Inspector Morse
Case Book: Farewell John Thaw

Ron Miller is the author of MYSTERY!: A Celebration, and a regular contributor to this web site.

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