Colin Dexter’s cantankerous, hard drinking police inspector whose beat is the halls of academia in Oxford, England has enjoyed success in print and on TV (played by John Thaw, and even leading to the successful spin-off, The Inspector Lewis Mysteries, wherein his sidekick is promoted and takes centre stage while utilizing the same milieu).
And on BBC Radio some of the novels have been adapted into at least three feature length plays (some serialized in half-hour or 45 minute instalments). John Shrapnel is superb as the caustic, impatient anti-hero — obviously he’s working with an established, popular personality, but his delivery nicely captures the sense of a hard-to-like character who you do, nonetheless, like. And Robert Glenister is understatedly effective as his long-suffering sergeant, Lewis. And the performances in general are top notch, as is the sense of environment.
Of the three 90 minute productions, The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn (1996) is perhaps the most conventional detective-mystery, investigating an initial murder (of a deaf teacher/professor) and drawing upon the world of academia that’s at the heart of the series. While Last Seen Wearing (1994) has a more atypical hook, involving Morse and Lewis taking on, not a murder, but a missing person cold case that had been a private obsession of a recently deceased detective. Murder does eventually result, but it allows the story to unfold in a slightly different way. Both productions are enjoyable and compelling, with twists and turns, mixing mystery, drama, and wry humour, but I’d argue Last Seen Wearing stands slightly ahead.
The Wench is Dead (1992) is a deliberately atypical tale (funny, given it was the first they adapted). In it Morse is laid up in hospital and, simply for a hobby, begins re-examining a controversial murder case from over a century before. I think the novel itself was the most critically acclaimed of the Morse books, and was, one suspects, meant as an homage to Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time, which was also about a hospitalized detective playing arm chair detective with a historical mystery — though in that case, using real history (there‘s an effective reading of it by Paul Young produced for BBC Radio, and I think there may be a version read by Derek Jacobi). The Morse story is almost two tales — one is more a character drama of Morse laid up in hospital, and the other is the mystery (with flashback scenes). I enjoyed it more a second time through, buoyed by Shrapnel’s compelling performance, but didn’t find the mystery as twisty as in the other stories. So, still decent — but probably the lesser of the three plays.
But overall, the Morse radio dramatizations are top drawer.