Colin Dexter: The Dead of Jericho

The Dead of Jericho
Colin Dexter
First published in the UK 1981, Macmillan
This edition 1982, Pan Books
ISBN: 9780330266932
302 pages
Score: 3/5

Looking at my blog usage statistics, this page gets  a lot of hits and I’m curious to know why, Are you reading this for a book group or a college assignment? Let me know in the comments.

The Dead of Jericho is the first Morse novel I have read, and here’s why: Unlike seemingly everyone else, I hated the TV series. Could not stand it. Same with Lewis. I can’t abide with all that touristy, Oxfordy, Latin-tagged, academics-killing-visiting-violinists-in-St-Gervase’s-under-cloisters stuff. Give me the gritty realism of Midsomer Murders any day.

I’ve avoided the Colin Dexter books as a result, despite their reputation. So I was surprised to find myself enjoying The Dead of Jericho. It does get off to a tweedy start with a line of Latin in the opening paragraph, but I kept my nerve and ploughed on.

Morse, drunk at a party, flirts with Anne Scott, an attractive younger woman who takes a liking to him and gives him her address. He doesn’t follow her up on her offer at the time, but six months later he changes his mind and pops round to her house in the Jericho area of Oxford. The house is quiet but the door is open and he goes in to call out for her. Still no answer, but Morse’s instincts tell him that somebody is hiding from him upstairs and he beats a diffident retreat. Later that day, Anne is reported dead. What at first seems like a straightforward suicide soon proves to be the first knot in the very tangled web which Morse has to unpick. He works unofficially at first, not wishing to reveal that he had visited Anne on the same day, but soon comes clean and is handed the case.

Morse is an interesting protagonist. Perhaps I never watched the TV version enough to gauge his character, but I would have summed him up as: crosswords, real ale, opera, grumpy. All of which is true, as his colleague Bell summarises:

Cleverest bugger I’ve ever met… he usually seems to be able to see things, I don’t know, half a dozen moves ahead of the rest of us… Spends most of his free time in the pubs – or listening to his beloved Wagner.

(I think ‘his beloved Wagner’ sounds less like a policeman than anything I’ve ever read.) However, Morse is more than the sum of these parts. He is refreshingly human:

What an idiot – what a stupid idiot – he was! It was that first, cowardly evasion of the truth that had caused it all – all because he didn’t want it to be known he had been floating around in Jericho looking for some necessary sex one afternoon.

Sergeant Lewis doesn’t really get to show his face until part three, but when he does, it’s clear that the John Thaw/Kevin Whateley on-screen dynamic was pretty accurate. Lewis is in many ways the perfect ‘Watson’. Whilst my reading of this paragraph is that it is satirical…

Morse knew in that moment exactly why he always wanted Lewis around. The man was so wholesome, somehow; honest, unpretentious, humble, almost, in his experience of philosophy and life. A lovable man; a good man. And Morse continued in a gentler, less arrogant tone.

…the Watson role is 100% clear in this:

He would indeed have been able to work it all out for himself had not Morse anticipated his activated musings.

To sum up: I’d recommend The Dead of Jericho to Morse fans and the Morse-averse alike.

Final destination: Back to the library

I’m glad to report that no visiting violinists were harmed in the writing of this book, and the sanctity of St Gervaise’s under-cloisters was unsullied. However, why is there a seemingly irrelevant college on the front cover? The Macmillan first edition shows a far more relevant terrace of Victorian houses.

About pastoffences

Past Offences exists to review classic crime and mystery books, with ‘classic’ meaning books originally published before 1987.
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13 Responses to Colin Dexter: The Dead of Jericho

  1. Maxine says:

    I read the first edition of this book – I was working temporarily in Blackwell’s bookshop then and I remember they promoted it when the book came out as it was by a local author. I liked it, and read the next few. However, when the TV series started it I watched an episode or two but watched no more – really did not like it. (I don’t think I’ve ever liked a TV crime series based on books I like, though as I rarely watch TV I may have missed some gems. What they did to Wingfield’s Frost, for example, was disgraceful, and I hated what they did to Rendell’s Wexford & Burden on the basis of a very few episodes in each case.)
    I did like the books – I think I read all or most of them – though I think they became excessively convoluted as they went on, both in Morse’s attempted “romantic life” and in the crimes themselves. The earliest three or four were the best – at least, those are the ones that stick in my mind.


  2. westwoodrich says:

    Did you enjoy Endeavour? I found it much more engaging for some reason, perhaps because it was a little less donnish.


  3. Margot Kinberg says:

    Oh, I have a real fondness for this series! Thanks for highlighting this novel. I think you’re quite right that the Morse/Lewis dynamic is such an important part of this series. As you say, we don’t see Lewis in action until a bit later in this novel, but he’s terrific when we do see him. There’s an interesting mix, too, of Morse’s private life and his “official” life here, which I think Dexter got right. A really terrific book


  4. Maxine says:

    I found Endeavour disappointing, but I had not read a Morse book for a very long time before reading it, so was really out of touch with him by then. I had the feeling while reading it “the genre has moved on”. But those first few books were pretty good, in the sense that I can still remember them anyway! And I think he was the first to treat Oxford as an ordinary place which is why so many of us living there liked them, spotting all the little-known (to non-university people) landmarks & roads.


  5. Sarah says:

    Much as I hate to disagree, I really enjoyed the TV series and found the early episodes (the ones based on the books) better than the novels. However, the series did then get a bit daft when new episodes were written but I did find it still watchable. I have read all the books and I do like them but they don’t stand out for me – as Maxine says, the genre has moved on. ‘Lewis’ is OK but it is more ‘gown’ than ‘town’ and I think Dexter always managed to combine the two. I’m yet to see ‘Endevour’ but I’m sure I will watch it when it is repeated.


  6. Very fair and balanced (to coin a phrase) review of this book. As someone who loves the books and the TV series as two related but entirely separate entities, I find myself in shall we say half agreement! Dexter’s great virtues are plotting and dialogue and I think these elements come across well in this novel. But I also love the TV version for its more romantic nature and for finding visual equivalents for the elliptical storytelling and sometimes overly convoluted plotting. Having Lewis be so much younger on TV works well to give it more emotional ballast in the relationship but in the puzzle-orientated books, as the series went on, having them be of roughly the same age is, as you say, much more Watson and Holmes and is a dynamic that also works extremely well.

    Never been able to get into MIDSOMER so shan’t comment – but you really made me smile with your comment about gritty realism!


  7. Marni Graff says:

    Wonderful reviews, even if I disagree with both the TV series of Morse and Lewis. Now those Dexter books are pure joy, and a big inspiration for The Blue Virgin, my mystery set in Oxford. I was fortunate to study Wilkie Collins and Daphne Du Maurier (I can see your smile now) one summer and the place is intoxicating, which is why I like to see it again in those series. The original books, however, are far superior.


  8. dfordoom says:

    I loved the TV series years ago. I started rewatching it recently and was surprised to find that I absolutely detest it! It reminds me of everything that has gone wrong with modern British television – heavy-handed, miserable and life-hating. I haven’t read any of the books – I suppose I should at least attempt one of them.


  9. Brad says:

    Is it because I’m a naive American that I really liked the series (I love Midsomer Murders too, although it has gotten pretty terrible lately), as well as Lewis, Endeavor and the like. Maybe it’s because we Americans are stuck with NCIS and eleven versions of Law and Order. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) Conversely, I really did try to read one of Dexter’s novels and just couldn’t get into it. Looking at the comments, I feel I should try again.


  10. Arik says:

    It’s because of a high school assignement!

    Liked by 1 person

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