The Real Morse

In his classic essay The Simple Art of Murder, the American writer Raymond Chandler made fun of a genre that is still rather popular: the murder story as an intricate puzzle. Chandler despised the artificiality of it and wrote that he would be willing “to go back to page 47 and refresh my memory about exactly what time the second gardener potted the prize-winning tea-rose begonia” if he would read a story in this vein which had the merest semblance to reality, but he had never come across one.

He wrote: “But fundamentally it is the same careful grouping of suspects, the same utterly incomprehensible trick of how somebody stabbed Mrs. Pottington Postlewaite III with the solid platinum poignard just as she flatted on the top note of the Bell Song from Lahme in the presence of fifteen ill-assorted guests.”

Then the little gray cells of the detective are put to work to come up with a solution so incredible that according to Chandler only a halfwit could guess it.

I think that as a literary genre it is even more dead – if you can say such a thing – than in 1944 when Chandler first published his essay. But on the screen it has survived much better, as people are much less critical when they watch than when they read.

As an educated adult, I wouldn’t think of reading a Hercule Poirot novel nowadays, but I did enjoy the Poirot movies and the episodes on TV. And I loved Inspector Morse, whose series ran on British television from 1987 until 2000.

By the way, a character that I regret to have never seen is the American detective Adrian Monk. Apparently in an episode from 2008, Mr. Monk and the Genius, he had to match his wits with a chess genius who had much in common with Bobby Fischer, such as a predilection to play Qxb2 in the Najdorf variation. Poisoned pawn, poisoned wife; such symbolism is natural to the genre. An important difference with Fischer was that the TV genius was a murderer.

He seems to get away with the evil deed and evade his just punishment until, with a condescending tone, he explains the rules of castling to Monk. Then Monk sees the light: at the cemetery, the chess genius had made two gravestones change place, just as in castling king and rook exchange their positions, more or less. Case solved, the rest is technique; digging up the corpses that is.

This solution would have appealed to Inspector Morse, who was a problem solver par excellence. In one episode he says to his assistant: “Lewis, how could I have missed that? Swanpole is an anagram of S.O. Pawlen. That means that the vagrant who has disappeared is the brother of the priest who jumped from the roof.” This is the way murder was solved in the refined intellectual atmosphere of Oxford. At least on television. Chandler would have shuddered.

The creator of the Morse character, the writer Colin Dexter, was an accomplished setter and solver of cryptic crosswords, just as his friend Sir Jeremy Morse. Many of the characters from Dexter’s books were named after people from the crossword community and he named his main character Inspector Morse after the man whom he called the most intelligent man he had ever met.

Jeremy Morse, who died at the age of 87 on February 4 this year, was from 1977 until 1993 chairman of Lloyds Bank, which he brought to prosperity by a conservative policy while other banks flew to the sun and crashed. Or so I have read.

I also read in the obituaries that he may have missed becoming Governor of the Bank of England because he might have had too much of Keynesian sympathies in the eyes of Prime Minister Thatcher. In the years in which he was in charge of Lloyds Bank, there was the Lloyds Bank Masters in London, an annual Open where many English players could score their first GM norm.

As a player Morse was not especially strong; not surprisingly for a puzzle master; he was in the first place a problem composer, specializing in 2-movers. His book Chess Problems: Tasks and Records is considered a standard reference work in this, for me, rather esoteric field.

As a classicist he wrote about the poet Horace and as a young man he said that it was his highest ambition to become a poet. I wonder if nowadays there still exist bankers as civilized as he.

Jeremy Morse, The Problemist 1975.
White gives mate in 2.

The solution can be seen in the game viewer. (Click here.)

And here is a link to an expert appreciation of his work as a problemist: