Classically Inclined

March 12, 2012

Inspector Morse and Classical Red Herrings

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 10:49 am
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It may come as a surprise to some of you to discover that I had never, prior to this year, watched any Inspector Morse. In retrospect, it’s something of a surprise to me as well, particularly as I’m discovering that I’m rather partial to a good dose of murder mystery (Poirot, Miss Marple, Mrs Bradley, Lord Peter Wimsey, Harriet Vane et al), so long as there isn’t very much blood and gore (which puts things like CSI Right Out). I think I had always assumed that Morse fell more into the blood and guts category, for no particularly good reason, but G called me on this and said that we must watch some Morse.

We started from the very beginning of the series, because that’s the proper way of doing this sort of thing – and I cannot tell you how glad it made me to discover that the very first episode of Morse is stuffed full with classical reception! And with classical reception of a particularly sneaky tint, as I shall hitherto divulge.

The plot revolves around the suicide of a woman called Anne Staveley, known to Morse since she used to sing in his choir and he had expressed some romantic interest in her, only to be rebuffed as there was another man in her life. She had a rather strange relationship with a young student called Ned Murdoch, a musician by inclination although hypothetically a lawyer by degree, and most certainly an addict by nature. The post-mortem discovered that Anne was pregnant, and had had a child previously; conversation with Anne’s mother revealed that this child had been born some twenty years previously and had been given up for adoption. There had been some suggestively-shot scenes and an ambiguous phone-call earlier in the episode that suggested Anne and Ned were romantically involved; Ned blinds himself while he suffers particularly severe withdrawal symptoms. When Morse finds a copy of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex by Anne’s bedside, it seems the solution to the crime.

Of course, Morse is utterly wrong (I shan’t give the plot away, and there’s another death in there tangential to this that confuses matters), but the fact remains that the plot of Sophocles’ play becomes a crucial factor in the unfolding of the episode, to the extent of Morse explaining the details to his deputy Lewis whilst in an Oxford pub (surely not the first time this has happened). What’s really interesting about this is that it inverts the normal ideas that are associated with classics. As I’ve said before, knowing classics and particularly knowing Greek is normally a short-hand for social privilege and intellectual excellence – an education which exposed one to the classical world produced the civil servants and politicians of most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Power is in the hand of classicists. But in this first episode, Morse sets a trend for being bloody-minded and ignoring these conventions – and shows how assuming that classics somehow possesses a privileged sort of knowledge does not always lead you to the right answer. Given Morse’s own cavalier attitude to convention and following the rules, there’s something rather delicious about the series declaring its loyalties by lampooning this particular sacred cow right at the outset.



  1. The thirteen Morse novels (by Colin Dexter, a Cambridge graduate whose non-literary career included a spell teaching Latin and Greek, before he went to work for the University Examination Board in Oxford in the 1960s) are also worth a read for those who like this sort of thing. And those who do read them will discover that Morse himself is a (failed) Oxford classics student.

    Comment by Terrence Lockyer (@TLockyer) — March 12, 2012 @ 5:42 pm | Reply

  2. I’d also heartily endorse the novels, in particular the early ones and The Way Through The Woods. Some of the finest detective fiction ever written and with a intelligence behind them that is so often rare in the genre.

    Comment by Puzzle Doctor — March 12, 2012 @ 9:39 pm | Reply

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