Sophocles and Inspector Morse


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I’m reading a lot of detective fiction at the moment.  Partly for fun, and partly because I’m working on a book about Agatha Christie.  Which is also pretty good fun, I must admit.  I’ve got into the habit of noting possible connections, quotations and references – sometimes successfully, and sometimes not – and I thought a couple of minor examples might be of interest.  The first, which I’ll trace today, comes in Dexter’s The Dead of Jericho, in the early chapters:

dead of jericho

Was Walters imagining things, or did Mrs Purvis seem rather more nerous than when he had interviewed her the day before?  Imagining things, he decided, as he took his leave of her and walked along Canal Street to Great Clarendon Street where, turning left, he could se the sandstone, temple-like church of St. Paul’s, its fluted columns supporting the classical portico, facing him at the far end on the other side of Walton Street.

That gave me pause to think when I read it.  I happen to know that part of Oxford rather well.  Not from my own Oxford days, but from visits to friends in subsequent years.  In fact, for a few weeks I used to sit on that corner quite frequently, waiting to pick up someone I was dating, who worked at the University Press.  And there is no St Paul’s church on Walton Street.

This wouldn’t matter, except that Dexter is considered very much an Oxford novelist: he spends chunks of his books describing the streets and buildings of Oxford.  There are Morse Tours of Oxford you can go on, to retrace the characters’ steps.  The Turf Taven is fond of pointing out to tourists how often Inspector Morse has a drink in their pub.  So is the White Horse.  In fact this is so popular amongst pubs that the Angel and Greyhound has taken to putting a blackboard outside its door which reads:


…never had a pint here.  But you could!

Now that’s clearly a reference to Jerome K. Jerome, as it happens, but back to the subject at hand.  Dexter’s Morse novels are famously about Oxford, as is the TV series which was based on them.  Indeed I’ve been told they have to mix up and splice together the colleges, so that no story of murder or fraud or assault might become accidentally libellous to any real member of an Oxford college. I don’t know if that’s true, but I did once watch an episode of Lewis and notice the disgraceful malarkeys going on in a certain church building, where I had been worshipping the previous day.  Though they gave the church a different name.

The novels also indulge in that kind of splice-and-rename.  Beaufort College, with its “students” rather than dons, and its nickname of “The House”, is clearly Christ Church.  I think the cinema Studio 2, in The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn, is probably The Phoenix, though confusingly The Phoenix also turns up under its own name in The Dead of Jericho.  The central church of St. Frideswide in Service of All the Dead is not the Oxford church of that name (which is in Bottley) but is the church of St Mary Magdalen under an assumed name.

So that was one possibility: St Paul’s was a church of different name, which is why I’d never heard of it before.  However, that didn’t solve the problem that there is no church at that point on Walton Street.  Dexter doesn’t usually simple invent things like that, especially when it’s largely scene-setting.  There’d be no point in scene-setting by inventing scenery that wasn’t there.  And, unlike P.D. James’ A Taste for Death or Dorothy L. Sayer’s Gaudy Night, there is no note at the beginning apologising urbanely to the inhabitants of a real place for erecting an imaginary building on their property.

Now some of you will be way ahead of me in this, and realized immediately what I am only now mentioning.  In point of fact there is a building which corresponds to Dexter’s description exactly where he puts it, but it is not a church.  It is the pilastered and classical cocktail bar known to students as “Freud’s”, emblazoned with the letters FREVD, and officially called “Freud”.  It used to be a church, and is no longer.  Problem solved: he’s calling by the old name, St. Paul’s.

But the story didn’t end there.  Or at least, not immediately.  Another possibility occurred to me.  The church is mentioned shortly after a character is found having hanged herself, and that chapter is headed with an epigraph from Sophocles:

We saw a knotted pendulum, a noose: and a strangled woman swinging there.

Sophocles, Oedipus Rex

I suddenly thought: St Paul’s isn’t a mistake, it’s a clue.  Dexter has deliberately used the old name for the building, so that only the very alert will notice.  In noticing, as I had, they’d be reminded that the building is currently known as “Freud”.  This would alert them  to the possible significance – and it isn’t a spoiler to say there is some possible significance – of the Sophocles quotation.  Having emblazoned a chapter with that epigraph, Dexter embedded Freud’s name in the next.  The two together could be a clue, or a red herring, but they’re exactly the sort of clue a cryptic crossword enthusiast like Morse would appreciate.

I was extremely pleased by this theory, and went to confirm that it was historically possible. Of course I couldn’t prove Dexter meant this particular clue, but I could prove it was within the bounds of reasonable criticism, by checking the dates.  And there the theory fell apart.  The Dead of Jericho was published in 1982.  The church was closed in the 1960s, but Freud did not open until 1988.  There is apparently no way that Dexter could have deliberately hidden the bar’s name in the text, because he could not have known the building would be called Freud.

This, I feel, is a shame.  It is such a brilliant clue, and so masterfully hidden, by a discrepancy in the text which should trigger puzzlement in the knowledgeable reader and thus lead them to notice the name.  It should be Dexter’s work.  But it isn’t. It is sheer coincidence, of the sort that detectives so often decry in detective novels.  It’s also a salutary lesson to someone working on detective fiction that not every single quirk of the text was laid there as a puzzle or a challenge to be unravelled.  In a more positive sense, it is a remarkable example of the way texts accrue meaning after their composition and publication.  In investigating the mysterious suicide, the policeman walks under an epigraph from Oedipus Rex and past a building which now reads FREVD.  Stranger than (detective) fiction.