Endeavour (2012) is a prequel. For those of you who have some passing interest in the detective genre, you should recognise the name as belonging to Inspector Morse, the series character created by Colin Dexter. This is the first “real” crime he investigates and takes seriously. To some extent, the older Morse never quite seems to fit in the police force. His temperament is suspect and his irascible intellectualism tends to alienate the average police officer, no matter what his or her rank. If we travel back in time to 1965, the fish out of water problem is even more acute. There always has been hostility in the ranks towards the “clever”. No-one’s supposed to shine. Everyone rubs along together, solving crimes or not as luck dictates. The arrival of the young Morse has therefore induced culture shock on both sides of the divide. Having left Oxford University where he was studying Greats without graduating, our young hero spent a little time in the Signal Regiment. Not surprisingly, his face didn’t fit there either. Now at the rank of Detective Constable, Morse has written out his letter of resignation when he’s transferred to Oxford Central. A fifteen-year old girl has disappeared. More people are needed to cover this sudden increase in potential criminal activity.
Rather unexpectedly, Morse finds himself interested by the disappearance of this girl. Instead of following the instructions given to him, he begins to poke around and soon discovers she had a system for making appointments to meet someone. It was based on crossword puzzles published in the Oxford Mail as references to famous poems where an address or meeting place could be found. The middle ranks are scathing in their assessment this is a complete waste of time. They are therefore profoundly embarrassed when the girl’s body is found at the place Morse predicts. A young DC is not supposed to show up the senior ranks as not “clever”. In the midst of all this he also acquires what may be a suicide. A young undergraduate seems to have shot himself on the banks of the river. Except he was one of several university people who had had contact with this girl. She was being groomed as an Eliza Doolittle in a bet she could hoodwink the Registrar of one of the colleges.
The most pleasing aspect of this standalone story written by Russell Lewis is that it takes its time to set everything up. Shaun Evans is rather good as the despondent but curious young Morse. Lurking somewhat in the background is DI Fred Thursday (Roger Allam) who sees a spark in the young man. At the halfway point, the narrative divides into two streams. In a way, both are designed to show different facets of Morse’s character but one is the red herring. Put simply, there’s corruption in high places. This is set some two years after the Profumo Affair so people in 1965 would be sensitive if it was to be suggested that another Minister had been procuring young girls at sex parties. Indeed, Harold Macmillan, the then Prime Minister, would be interested in ensuring no details of such a Minster’s behaviour ever surfaced. The Special Branch might be asked to lean on Thursday and Morse to turn their investigation in a different direction. The second thread concerns one of the two academics in the bet. He sets the crossword puzzles that arranged the meetings with the murdered girl. Morse is deeply suspicious of this man but it seems that he has an alibi. A witness places the girl at a bus stop a six in the morning. Shortly afterwards, the man and his wife attended the Sunday morning service. While establishing this, Morse becomes quite friendly with his wife. She’s a famous opera singer, now in almost complete retirement. He finds he can talk with her about his past. She confirms waking her husband and getting him to the church on time.
Looking back, there’s an awful lot that’s good about this story. I lived through this time and knew many of these characters. There’s the spiv car dealer who procures the young girls for the sex parties. He’s well connected because of the clientele that comes to the parties and can later enjoy the merchandise in the privacy of their own homes. Obviously, his connections include various police officers. At the lower levels, they simply take cash to look the other way. There are the university lecturers who consider themselves a breed apart. But there’s also Thursday. If there’s a wrong note in this episode, it’s him. In a way, it’s the fault of the required focus of the story. This is Morse’s first case so it has to be about him. Thursday has to be prepared to allow a completely unknown quantity run his own investigation without any direct supervision. When he’s caught between Special Branch, his own senior officers who may attend these parties and the corrupt lower officers, I don’t think he would be quite so trusting as to put his future in the hands of Morse. He would either accept Morse’s resignation and hide, or he would be with Morse all the time, directing him to ensure they got the result. The explanation at the end also comes out a little pat. Suddenly everything drops into place so there can be the rather public arrest. It’s certainly dramatic but unnecessarily so. It doesn’t quite fit the Morse psychology. I think he would prefer to be more discreet in this situation. Finally we have the drama from the Special Branch officer. I’m not convinced this is even remotely credible in the Britain of 1965. I would be interested to know whether there’s any historical precedent for this kind of behaviour. That said, the first half is wonderful and the slow emergence of Morse’s backstory is handled beautifully. I think I’ll just try to overlook the perfunctory way in which the mystery is solved. Hopefully, with four more episodes on the way, there will be a better focus on the mystery to be solved and less on making Morse a sympathetic character. This leaves me saying Endeavour is good but not that good.