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Thursday, December 08, 2011

From the Vault episode 2: Letter from Colin Dexter, 1994

In my early teens, I had an obsession with detective novels. I still love them, but back then, with puberty raging in my heart and loins, I wanted to be all the female sleuths and/or sleep with all the male sleuths when I grew up. It might have started with Sherlock Holmes - I know I had a dumbed-down kids' version of The Hound of the Baskervilles and soon moved to the real thing, and I also devoured all the Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden books early on. At some point, I found a copy of Murder Ink in the school library and pored over its pages, systematically attempting to acquire and read every book it mentioned; I know that's why I discovered and branched out into John le Carré and Dashiell Hammett. (I even dropped into the Murder Ink store in Manhattan for old times' sake on my solo US vacation in 2002.)

By 1993, my obsession had mostly focused upon Inspector Morse. I first encountered Morse through the television series, which in Australia ran on Channel Seven and was enjoyed by my dad. As much as I loved the show, the books were, of course, better, and I read and reread them many times, chasing down all the references to opera and literature and poetry and classics. I also collected them avidly; I think I had at least four different editions of The Way Through the Woods.

I'm not a fan-lettery person, but in 1994, I took stock of how my little fourteen-year-old life had been shaped by my devotion to Morse books, and started drafting a letter to author Colin Dexter, after rather creepily stalking him as best I could by hunting down on VHS all his guest appearances in the series and looking up his address in an authors' directory I found in the State Library of Queensland. (Just think what I would have done with the internet and Google Earth.) I wish I'd kept a copy of my letter to laugh at in posterity; there were at least four pages of gushing, along with detailed descriptions of how the novels had inspired me to join the chess club, take up Latin (through a correspondence course, since my school didn't offer it), research the baffling mysteries of Freemasonry (this interest vanished after I finally learned the handshake when I was 16), and become a fledgling opera buff (I bought an expensive subscription with my allowance and attended all the shows by myself, since nobody else I knew could stand the stuff); in particular, I described my resultant affliction with a profound admiration for the music of Wagner. I blathered on with oblivious teenaged narcissism* about playing the viola in the youth orchestra**. After four or five painstakingly handwritten drafts, the letter was dropped in the mail and forgotten. I honestly never expected a reply; I just wanted to thank the guy and talk about myself.

My mother didn't understand why I wouldn't stop screaming hysterically when this came in the mail. She looked genuinely worried, as though she feared the familial insanity had taken me early.




Text:

22.9.94
My dear Melissa,
That's just about the sweetest letter I've ever received. Bless you! If you were here, I'd give you a hug and a kiss (if that were allowed!).
My greetings to you from Oxford and from Chief Inspector Morse. And every best wish to you yourself always!
You write awfully well, you know. And perhaps you're going to be a writer yourself?
Sincerely
Colin Dexter


I'm not going to say that this letter made me who I am. But it certainly kicked all of my Morse-inspired interests into high gear. I took more music courses in grades 11 and 12. When I agreed to go to med school after graduation, it was only because I thought I wanted to be a forensic pathologist. The first drink I ever had was Bell's Scotch. The first $1,000 I ever saved, I spent on buying tickets to the first Australian production of the entire Ring Cycle in Adelaide in 1998. And now, of course, I am a composer, and currently, one of my graduate courses is a seminar led by Carolyn Abbate (squee) focused on Tristan und Isolde.

This blog post brought to you by nostalgia provoked by watching Inspector Lewis on Netflix Instant, followed by Humoresque, which was our Tristan "reading" this week.

*as opposed to self-aware 31-year-old narcissism.

**When his next book came out in 1996, one of the young characters "had a great love of music, and played the viola in the National Youth Orchestra." Naturally, my blood ran cold upon reading that sentence, and I felt certain I was responsible - me, personally, responsible for a small trait of a small character in a Morse book. However, that character had committed suicide, so I couldn't bring myself to think on it too deeply.

Tangent: is it now an accepted thing that all forensic pathologists on TV are women?
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