The cerebral TV detective Endeavour Morse first materialized in the bestselling crime novels by Colin Dexter. Morse was a fascinating new sort of cop, a sensitive soul in love with opera and poetry, not stereotypically weary and hard drinking. Inspector Morse proceeded to hook U.S. television audiences from 1988–2001, generated the sequel Inspector Lewis (2006–2016), and the prequel Endeavour (2012–) with Shaun Evans as the young Morse.
Here are all 13 titles as published, with commentary from two crime fiction aficionados who knew Dexter—Barry Forshaw, author of Crime Fiction: A Reader’s Guide, Brit Noir and American Noir, and Andrew Gulli, managing editor of The Strand mystery magazine.
Last Bus to Woodstock (1975)
Dexter first began writing in 1972, creating a police detective who’s passionate about the arts and whose intellect may be wasted in his position. Morse and partner DS Lewis explore the death of a girl beaten outside an Oxford pub. The author “struggled to refine [this debut book] into a form he found pleasing,” says Forshaw. That said, “it demonstrated at a stroke that Dexter was an effortless master of the crime novel.”
Last Seen Wearing (1976)
Like most Morse stories, this one centers on a puzzle. “Someone is dead, but not exactly dead,” says Gulli. In fact, the deceased is sending letters. Dexter’s second novel “firmly set his name as a writer who’d one day be the crime fiction heir to Raymond Chandler, Agatha Christie, and John Dickson Carr,” Gulli adds. “Though his works can be described as literary puzzles, Dexter was more concerned with the ultimate riddle—the motivations of the human mind.”
The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn (1977)
Like his character Nicholas Quinn, Dexter became a school administrator after losing his hearing. Here, Quinn joins an ad-hoc university committee where his profound deafness actually leads him to unearth a conspiracy. A prologue provides readers with clues Morse and Lewis don’t have as they investigate Quinn’s murder. “With all the books I’ve written, I’ve always known what’s going to happen…I suppose I must be categorized as a whodunit writer rather than the kind who concentrates on the motivation of crime,” Dexter told Gulli for The Strand.
Service of All the Dead (1979)
The novel is presented in four parts, each taken from a book of the Bible. Dexter addresses moral questions from personal responsibility to protecting one’s reputation. “The formula with Dexter in his [writing] was that there was no formula,” says Gulli. “This is one of my favorites—steeped with Gothic atmosphere, treachery, and murder. And not only a good book, but instructional for aspiring writers.” The UK’s Crime Writers Association awarded Dexter’s fourth novel its Silver Dagger prize.
Dead of Jericho (1981)
Morse flirts with a woman he meets at a social event. When it later appears she has committed suicide, the inspector’s mission is to prove she was really murdered. Dexter’s fifth title “offers perhaps the most entertaining contrast between the fiercely analytical Morse and the more by-the-numbers Lewis,” says Forshaw. Dead of Jericho earned the author a second Silver Dagger award from the Crime Writers Association.
The Riddle of the Third Mile (1983)
WWII Lieutenant Browne-Smith stops a soldier from saving a comrade in a burning tank. “This is one of the more ambitious Morse [books],” says Forshaw. “As [happens] so often in Dexter novels, a significant action in the past has dangerous ramifications in the future.” Jumping to the 1980s, Browne-Smith is an Oxford professor who suddenly disappears after posting grades. “Fans of Charles Todd’s novels set during the Great War will appreciate the meticulous research Dexter put into this riveting and unsettling story,” adds Gulli.
The Secret of Annexe 3 (1986)
Morse and Lewis explore a murder committed after a New Year’s costume party. With masqueraders booked into the same hotel annex, the story is a “locked room mystery,” which the detectives must sort out. This novel “is a favorite of many Colin Dexter admirers and deservedly so,” says Forshaw. It shows “a growing assurance in plotting—always a specialty of the author, but now refined into something complex and ingenious.”
The Wench is Dead (1989)
This novel earned the Crime Writer’s Association’s Golden Dagger. Morse is hospitalized, recovering from an ulcer. Bedridden, he researches a crime he’s read about; a true story from 1859 about a woman who drowned in the Oxford Canal, her alleged assailants punished. “Here, Dexter utilized his own research into a true-life case,” says Forshaw. “The backwards-looking structure of the book seems inspired by Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time (1951)…[Dexter was] long aware of the debt he owed his illustrious predecessors and [was] always ready to acknowledge it.”
The Jewel that was Ours (1991)
An American tour group visits Oxford where one suffers a lethal heart attack in her hotel room. A priceless jeweled artifact the woman was donating to a local museum is found in her purse. Is there a connection when the group’s tour guide is murdered the next day? “The tour from hell might be detrimental to Morse’s dyspeptic health (though he’s been known to ‘bottle’ his emotions),” says Gulli. “This novel brings a new and chilling meaning to the catchphrase, ‘Experience Oxford’.”
The Way Through the Woods (1992)
Morse sees an odd newspaper submission, which offers clues to find a Swedish student gone missing from Oxford a year ago. The paper then publishes letters from those attempting to interpret the clues. The inspector gets himself assigned to the case. “Not one for the faint-hearted, but for fans of dark psychological thrillers [like those] by Ruth Rendell and Ruth Ware,” says Gulli. “One of the gems of the Colin Dexter canon,” adds Forshaw and indeed, Dexter took home his second Golden Dagger from the Crime Writer’s Association for this title.
The Daughters of Cain (1994)
Sickly and contemplating retirement, Morse and the ever-reliable Lewis inherit an open case involving an Oxford professor’s stabbing death; no weapon has yet been found nor suspect identified. When they uncover startling information about the victim, the result is too many suspects. “In vintage Dexter style, you’re left asking yourself how this master of the crime novel was able to pull the wool over your eyes for what feels like the umpteenth time,” says Gulli.
Death is Now My Neighbor (1996)
A young woman is shot dead through a window of her home and may be an accidental victim. Morse and Lewis investigate, but what really counts here is the poignant relationship between them, especially as Morse’s physical ailments become challenging. And “hooray, we also finally find out Morse’s first name,” adds Gulli. At the novel’s end, Morse sends Lewis a note, signed with his full name. A year after publishing this 12th novel, Dexter received the Crime Writer’s Association’s lifetime achievement recognition, the Diamond Dagger.
The Remorseful Day (1999)
In this final Morse novel, our inspector is stubbornly reluctant to investigate the murder of an allegedly promiscuous nurse. Lewis is left to wonder if his boss is somehow connected to the victim. “By now…Dexter had openly admitted to becoming weary of the character, à la Conan Doyle and Holmes,” says Forshaw, and he “drew the series decisively to a close.” Dexter “would always say he couldn’t imagine what another writer would do to Morse if he [himself] didn’t finish him off,” adds Gulli.