The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn by Colin Dexter (1977)
No human action happens by pure chance unconnected with other happenings, none is incapable of explanation.
Warning – this review contains spoilers
Colin Dexter and Inspector Morse had a lot in common, I expect they would have enjoyed sharing a few pints of Old Hooky at “The Bird and Baby” in Oxford. Dexter would have discovered it was always his round. Both were born around 1930; Dexter’s father ran a small garage and taxi company, Morse’s father was a taxi driver. Both were in the Royal Corps of Signals. Dexter read Classics at Christ’s College (Cambridge) and taught Classics at a grammar school. Morse studied ‘Greats’ (Classics) at the fictional Lonsdale college (Oxford) and loved classical literature and mythology. They shared “the same views on politics and religion” and had a love of cryptic crosswords, English literature, cask ale, Wagner, and the detection of crime.
To better appreciate The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn you need to know a little more about the book’s author, Colin Dexter. After 9 years of teaching Classics at a grammar school, Dexter was forced to retire because of the difficulties that his deafness was causing him. He switched careers to that of university administrator and became Senior Assistant Secretary at the University of Oxford Delegacy of Local Examinations in Oxford from 1966 to 1988.
The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn is dedicated to Jack Ashley (1922– 2012), a Labour MP in the House of Commons (UK). As a result of complications during a routine ear operation he became profoundly deaf, aged 45. Ashley prepared to resign his seat, but was persuaded instead to take a course in lip-reading and a few weeks later returned to parliament. He became a much respected long-time campaigner for disabled people. It is possible that Dexter met Ashley prior to the writing of the novel (the author had his own battles with hearing impairment).
The Morse books, though steady sellers, seem not to have sold sufficient copies for Dexter to give up his day job and become a full time writer until Inspector Morse hit our television screens. From 1975 to 1988 he combined his day job with that of crime novelist.
Colin Dexter draws heavily upon his own background in his third crime novel, The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn (1977), set in the claustrophobic world of the Oxford Foreign Examinations Syndicate. Though independent of the University, the Syndicate is overseen by dons. When one of the Syndicate dies it is assumed that it is suicide. Inspector Morse is called in and announces that it is a murder. Any one of a small group of Nicholas Quinn’s colleagues could be the killer, each has their own secrets to protect, all the secrets will come out, but not all of them will survive.
The novel begins with a prologue detailing how the fresh-faced Nicholas Quinn came to be recruited to the Syndicate. You can skip this prologue if you wish, but if you do you will miss some pre-crime clues that give you an advantage over Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis.
In the prologue the reader joins the Syndicate’s recruitment committee as they discuss the merits of different candidates and whether Quinn’s profound deafness might cause him problems at work. Having been part of this world myself (much later) I feel fairly well qualified to say that Dexter nicely captures the atmosphere of an ad hoc university committee. It’s all there – the formalities, the clashing vested interests, the grumbling as the 3-hour mark approaches; I could almost taste the bad coffee and Rich Tea biscuits. This is where Dexter is particularly strong, putting you in the middle of a convincing fictional world as events are happening, it almost feels as if you could plunge in at any time and become actively involved.
Ultimately the committee votes in favour of appointing Quinn. The decision is swung because of the strong advocacy of one man, Mr Roope, a brilliant young chemistry don. Roope claims he would rather support a capable candidate who has a significant disability, over someone who appears to have had a smooth, easy life.
With [the other candidate] it wouldn’t be a case of taking the rough with the smooth, but taking the smooth with the smooth
Roope adds that Quinn appears to have more integrity than the other candidate. By championing Quinn, Roope seals his own fate. It is Quinn’s deafness that leads the newcomer to discover a conspiracy to sell the Syndicate’s valuable exam papers and it is his integrity that gets him murdered.
And so Inspector Morse is called in to investigate the death of Nicholas Quinn. The chosen murder weapon is cyanide in the sherry, an appropriate method of dispatching awkward people within the academic community – just as vicars tend to plunge off their church towers and brewers drown in their fermentation vats. Strangely I can only think of one book-related death in a library (Leonard Bast crushed by a book case in Howards End) but, alas, the victim wasn’t a librarian.
Once you have finished the book you will understand why Dexter bothered to put this prologue in. From the beginning clues are presented to help us untangle The Gordian Knot that the author has created for us.
Turn him to any cause of policy,
The Gordian Knot of it he will unloose,
Familiar as his garter
— Shakespeare, Henry V, Act 1 Scene 1.
Alternatively we could wait for Inspector Morse and his “bagman” Lewis to do it for us, but that would be like waiting for tomorrow’s newspaper to fill in today’s crossword – surely most of the fun is having a go yourself?
Where I think The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn falls short is that the criminal behaviour seems reckless to a point beyond credibility. The mere fact that the perpetrators are highly educated should not make them more inclined to construct mind numbingly elaborate methods for dispatching their colleagues. No – when dispatching your colleagues simple is best. An elaborate plan adds an element of risk, a chain is only as strong as it’s weakest link.
Apparently, if you want to bump off a work colleague:
- Invite them over to your office during a fire alarm test (profound deafness means they can’t hear it);
- Lace their sherry with cyanide;
- Place the dead body inside a bag;
- Haul the bag into the corridor and out the back entrance into the boot of the murder victim’s own car. (The body later to be moved to a different location where a suicide can be staged);
- Re-enter the building and immediately leave again via the fire exit and on to the Emergency Assembly Point where 30 work mates are waiting; and
- Innocently take the communal clip board off a colleague and tick off both your name and (sneakily) that of the late lamented Nicholas Quinn (now enjoying the intimate surrounds of his own car boot).
Madcap stuff – and only 12 minutes to do it! And this is the relatively easy part of the plan. You’ve then got to somehow sneak Quinn past nosey neighbours and into his own flat to fabricate a suicide – adding fake notes, putting a ticket to a porno cinema in his pocket and filling his fridge with fake shopping. You previously vandalised the nearby lamp post to better allow you to enter the building in darkness.
OK, FAKING A SUICIDE … BUT:
The purpose of all these machinations is, of course, to (1) have a murder appear as a suicide – or if that fails (2) to separate the perpetrators from the offically recorded time of death, thereby ensuring they have good alibis. But surely there is a better way? There must be a delicious assortment of options when you have on your side a world class chemist and someone adept at bludgeoning folk with pokers.
WHAT COULD POSSIBLY GO WRONG?
Remember that this is a planned murder, not a spur of the moment thing. There are so many flaws in Part One of the plan alone, I hardly know where to start. What if Quinn didn’t die within seconds? He is a fit 31 year old and might have a hearty “Rasputin like” constitution. Any additional method used to finish him off might cause noise, mark the carpet or bruise the body – all fatal to the perpetrators nefarious plans. How easy is it to get a dead person into a sack against the clock? It would be like a macabre version of the Krypton Factor or It’s a Knockout. How do you avoid doing your back in when you have to lift an 11 stone man onto your shoulder, carry him down the corridor, out the back entrance and into the boot of an unfamiliar car? Ambitious behaviour for a middle-aged bureaucrat and first-time murderer; it’s a hiatal hernia waiting to happen. What if someone spots you struggling with your giant sack and offers to help? Awkward. What if the cadaver you are hauling about gets bruised? How will that look when you are trying to fake a convincing suicide? And how do you explain to your colleagues your late arrival at the Emergency Assembly Point? The weather is described as being “freezing”, so they are likely to be impatient. Presumably everyone will have ticked off their names already, except for Quinn and the murderer. Will it occur to nobody that Quinn is profoundly deaf and might not have heard the alarm? It is taking a huge risk that no one will greet you with: “You at last! But where’s Quinn?”.
ENTERTAINING SMOKE AND MIRRORS:
Not that any of the above is clearly laid before the reader like this. There is a lot of pleasantly distracting smoke and mirrors, red herrings and Oxford atmosphere. I have chosen to be pedantic and place the whole jig saw puzzle in front of you to illustrate that the plot sometimes creaks and groans under the strain that is put upon it. With a Sherlock Holmes story – or 1930s Golden Age Detective Fiction – you can plaster over some of the cracks by saying: “Things were different in those days”. But with Morse you don’t have that excuse. It was only written in 1977 and has a contemporary feel (with the exception of a few moments). I found myself asking a lot of awkward plot and motivation questions that I don’t usually ask of period crime fiction.
MORSE AND LEWIS (TV vs. novel):
The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn is mostly about Inspector Morse, the Syndicate and crime. Readers have access to Morse’s deepest thoughts and feelings, but Sergeant Lewis is something of a minor character. In the television series it is much more of a partnership. Perhaps TV needs a more high profile sidekick so that Morse can explain aloud his ideas and thinking processes. Or perhaps, on telly, Morse’s often morose disposition needed to be balanced by a sunnier, more upbeat personality – yin-yang, dark-bright, negative-positive.
It is the TV partnership that has recently been getting criticism, particular from the younger generation some of whom see Morse/Lewis as having an abusive and bullying relationship. I’ll leave others to fight that one out. In the book Morse is a heavy drinker, often pondering sex (or his lack of it), deeply absorbed, clever and arrogant. He sees his role as doing most of the brainwork, leaving the routine work to an under confident but mostly admiring Lewis. Even by 1970s standards, Morse would have been told he took his sergeant for granted and needed to support him more, but in this novel he’s not noticeably abusive.
LANGUAGE & POLITICAL CORRECTNESS (TV vs. novel):
In the TV version there is a toning down of language and an increase in political correctness – for example the “F” word is replaced with the “S” word, there are fewer references to sex, and “schizophrenia” becomes “emotional imbalance”. Some casual sexism is removed. There is a reference in the TV series to “positive discrimination” in favour of a deaf candidate, this is less explicit in the novel. In the book an important plot point is the local “pornographic cinema” showing The Nymphomaniac. In the TV version it is an independent cinema showing the more respectable Last Tango in Paris (“most of our customers are married Inspector”). At the end of the novel, Morse and Lewis go to see the film that has played such a significant part in their investigation. In the TV version Morse attempts to see the film on his own, but the programme has changed to the children’s classic 101 Dalmatians. This leads Lewis to say “Oh great, I might pop home and fetch the wife and kids!” and then drive away. Morse crosses the road to the pub. Credits roll. A more family friendly ending.
The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn is an absorbing read in the tradition of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. The world created feels real and immediate, even if the plot strains credibility. Inspector Morse is a modern gentleman detective with a working-class Welsh (not Geordie) sidekick, Lewis. I’m told that the books get better as you work your way through the series, this one was number 3 of 13. I expect to read others.
This review is part of a series covering classic detectives in fiction (for complete list see below):
1. Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie [Hercule Poirot] Book review
2. Talking about Detective Fiction by P.D. James Book review
3. The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn by Colin Dexter [Inspector Morse] Book review
4. 4.50 from Paddington by Agatha Christie [Miss Marple] Book review