Thursday, 26 November 2009
The detective who dies, James Bond and birdwatching
A good number of readers of Ian Fleming’s stories already know that the name of his hero, i.e. the name of the secret agent James Bond came up almost by chance, when in the process of writing his first story, his eye fell accidentally on a book by James Bond, the ornithologist, the one who wrote the “Birds of the West Indies”.
The name appeared to him “masculine” enough and so he chose it for his hero.
From that time on, a number of anecdotal stories have circulated on the confusion of the public about the identity of the “real” James Bond. Apart from the personal charm, the cosmopolitan air and the masculine name, they do not share any other characteristic. Ian Fleming’s hero hasn’t expressed any love for nature and its observation and it is not likely that he ever will. His many adventures have not brought about any significant changes to his personality. He does not become more mature from his experiences.
He stays eternally young and virile. He is a great lover, exhausting of course the life span of the actors that impersonate him. As soon as the traces of getting on become evident on their looks, they give way to the next James Bond, who is constantly reborn from his ashes.
Contrary to the “undead” James Bond, the hero of Colin Dexter, one of my favourite (British) authors of crime fiction is detective Morse, who, in the course of the successive stories, grows old, gets sick – he is affected by diabetes at the age of sixty – and before retirement, he dies as we read in the final Inspector Morse novel, “The Remorseful day”.
Morse, apart from his personal charm that also makes him a great lover, has nothing else in common with Ian Fleming’s hero. He does not exercise, he is a compulsive whiskey drinker, he is an excellent cryptic crossword solver – as his spiritual father, Colin Dexter who named him after his rival in crosswords, Sir Jeremy Morse.
Chief Inspector Morse is educated, highly cultured, and does not tolerate spelling mistakes in a letter not even in an informal note! Apart from these passions, he has also a soft spot for the music of Richard Wagner. What has this aesthete Detective, the creation of a Cambridge literature graduate that has quit teaching due to his loss of a hearing, to do with Fleming’s secret agent?
Nothing at all, we would say. On the contrary, his traits make up the picture of the extreme opposite of the secret agent.
Nevertheless, there is something more, and this is what caused the previous bizarre associations and comparisons. It is the strange relation of Inspector Detective Morse with birdwatching and ornithology.
The origin of his name comes definitely from Sir Jeremy Morse, the famous cryptic crossword solver, that had been the Chancellor of Bristol university before becoming the chairman of Lloyd Bank. (This excludes Samuel Morse, the American of the 18th century, who invented Morse code!) Although Inspector Detective Morse’s “biographers” do not make any allusion to her, there is also one other famous ornithologist, sharing the name Morse: Margaret Morse (1883 – 1974), renowned for her work on the observation of the Song sparrow.
Is this a coincidence, or a conscious choice of the author that decided to proceed to an overdetermination, i.e. to name the Inspector after the crossword solver and the ornithologist as well. For this character, who is not a mere caricature and is subjected to changes and development, nothing can be ruled out.
On the other hand, the case of a coincidence cannot be is not excluded, if we take into account the pterophobia (pteron: feather) of Chief Inspector Morse, in other words his refusal to travel by plane. The Chief Inspector will have nothing to do with flying, high or low, something that is representative of the world of birds. Perhaps by mentioning feathers and flying, even to negate them, the author manages to relate them with the hero even more. This could be a hint to something else, to a deeper connection between them.
There is a scene in the first chapter of the final Inspector Morse novel, where the status quo of all the previous books is subverted. This scene depicts the swan song of Morse, when he contemplates from his window the flowers of his garden. We witness there, the radical changes in his character.
The flowers first:
The relation of Morse – a man of erudition – with flowers is ambiguous. It is determined by his “cultivated” character and embraces the knowledge of their names, as well as their position and their importance in the works of the great poets. This, together with their mythological symbolism, make “the violets that are easily fanned”, or the “globed peonies”, or the meadows with daffodils familiar to him But the relation ends here! Do not ask him to recognize real flowers in a garden. His flowers are the flowers of literature.
Morse in his maturity, becomes aware of this deficit in the contact with the real world and decides to fill in the gap. This will be done by attempting not to observe the world of flowers but the world of birds.
Thus, at a mature age, he decides to engage in the observation of the world of birds. He even thinks that if he could be reborn, he would prefer to be an ornithologist.
For him “life would be poorer if birds would cease to sing”. This is what the man who used to enjoy listening to Wagner, wholeheartedly admits. He makes a subscription to “Birdwatching” and borrows RSPB Birdwatcher’s Guide from Summertown Library. He buys the necessary equipment, binoculars and seeds in order to attract the birds in his yard. It goes without saying that this enlightenment and love for nature will not be able to get Chief Inspector Morse out of his house.
This is how the last novel with a living Chief Inspector Morse starts, in his new capacity as a birdwatcher, giving new meaning to his name and unexpected turns to the plot. The mention of the song of the birds is a tribute to the song sparrow and the renowned – although unknown to the general public - American ornithologist Margaret Morse, who was born in Amherst – Massachussets, where Emily Dickinson, confined to her gardens, had lived. Margaret Morse contributed in a unique way to the study of bird and child behaviour since she managed to extend her results from the observation of birds to the study of language acquisition of children.
If Colin Dexter, the writer, was not so much a man of letters, we would be absolutely certain that Morse’s naming is mere coincidence. We now think that it might rather be a literary construction, set up by the author of the book. Or is it not?
Nevertheless, we can trace some clues in this case that are leading us beyond a witticism expressed just to parallel – even in retrospect – Morse’s naming with that of James Bond’s. As if detectives and secret agents were meant, to be named after famous ornithologists!
What are these clues:
In the first chapter, we witness a representation, a correspondence of the small gardens of Oxford with the gardens of Amherst made in a masterly manner. This is done by mentioning the famous verses of Oscar Wilde, “a little tent of blue/that prisoners call sky” from “The ballad of the Reading Gaol” in relation with the small gardens of Oxford, as seen by a person confined in his house.
The confinement and the gardens of Oxford is an allusion to the confined poet in the gardens, but this poet is Emily Dickinson of Amherst and from there, the ground is prepared for the Amherst lady of the birds, ie Margaret Morse.
From his garden of Oxford, the confined Inspector Detective – poet, realizes as he advances towards the end of his life that from now on, he will not only read but he will observe. In a way, he never used evidence for his detective work. He heard people’s stories and was drew conclusions – without direct participation - by exhausting the power of his mind, making random connections and analyzing what the witnesses testified and the narratives of his assistants as well.
With this new need for a change, expressing his need for a second chance, to live as an ornithologist – a bird watcher – the mortal Morse recovers a new, a deeper relation with his name and with the core of his existence.
I came across a reference to a book about Detective Morse, just before uploading the English version of this post. I have not yet read the book but I am sure that it must be very revealing, since … it is about Detective Morse.
Nevertheless, I am writing about it right now, because of the name of its author. The title of the book is “The World of Inspector Morse: London, MacMillan, 1998” and the author is: Christopher Bird!!!
Posted by Poly Hatjimanolaki, Athens, Greece