Morse Code

morse codeishThe first two men shown on this episode of Inspector Morse are a paraplegic and a telephone repair man. Two things are immediately clear – one of these men will soon be dead and the other one will not be the murderer.

I dig in.

When I first started watching Morse, I spent a month or so in complete confusion. A few times a week, for about 103 minutes, I’d sweat, rewind, and shout things like “No! The archer was in Venice!” or “How did the cricket player do it, that’s totally against the Spirit of the Game?” or “I should have known that blind driving instructor was shady.” Though at first it was difficult to figure out how to watch an episode of Morse, I soon learned to read Morse Code.

After the paraplegic’s head is blown off in an ostensible suicide (puhlease!) I begin cataloging the characters. I use a notebook for this. So far, there’s the son-in-law who found the body, the telephone repairman, and the cleaning lady who (from our point of view) was the last person to see the paraplegic alive. Morse always quips that the last person to see the victim alive is the killer. And though I mark a tiny star next to her name on my list, I am 85-90% certain she’s not the killer.

The first thing I learned about Morse is that each episode has more red herrings than an aquarium full of herrings and Hawaiian Punch. The immediate suspect is never the murderer. This is a departure from many American shows I watched in the past, in which the detectives know halfway through who they’re gunning for. More different still are the howdunits like Monk and Columbo. In these both the viewer and the respective detective know who did it almost immediately and the episode is about figuring out how they did it and how to catch them.

Morse, conversely, is a real whodunit. And in dramatic flair, the killer is usually revealed in the last few minutes of the show.

Supporting these red herrings is a bunch of suspicious secondary characters. A common Morse suspect list contains at least one adulterous couple, sometimes two couples, and sometimes it’s like an orgy in Caligula’s court. There’s also a person who owes the dead guy money, and then there’s the person hiding a terrible secret.

These secondary characters exude guilt in various manners. There are scenes filled with fleeting glances, contentious eye contact, the slamming of cabinets, imploring the gods in interrogation rooms, and a lot of window glaring. This is when one character – usually a prime suspect – glares out the window at Morse after he’s left their house. This effect is better when the character is holding a drink.

Today’s suspect list totals out at seven. There’s the paraplegic’s (very plain) widow, the cleaning lady, a doctor who assists suicides and his horribly scarred wife, a one-eyed Scot named Gregor, an (alcoholic) womanizer, and the suffering wife’s millionaire brother. The adulterous couple is the doctor’s wife and the womanizing alcoholic. This could give the suicide doctor a motive somehow, but he was fly-fishing in Scotland at the time of the murder. Still, I circle his name on my list. The widow’s millionaire brother spends a little too much time on a mechanical horse in the company of the one-eyed Scot to be taken seriously, so I leave them both uncircled.

All the evidence points to the womanizing alcoholic, who owed the deceased money, found the corpse, and was cheating on the deceased’s daughter (who was killed years ago in a suspicious road accident). But this is exactly what Morse thinks too and it’s only halfway through the episode, so this all but guarantees his innocence. After the womanizing alcoholic loses his shit in the middle of an interrogation I am convinced he’s not the killer.

The widow was supposedly in London while her husband was being killed. Moreover, she used to be engaged to Morse. I circle her name. Twice. In red.

Navigating the waters of a Morse episode is made more difficult by secondary factors. In the first place, I always try to figure out who Morse has a crush on. There’s one in every episode and half of the time it’s the killer. Another factor is the growing death count. Sometimes a Morse episode has two, three, four murders. I gets to the point that I begin to suspect Morse himself because he’s the only person left still alive and everyone knows Lewis wouldn’t hurt a soul.

One of the more difficult factors of Morse is how different British dialogue is from American dialogue. American dialogue is far more straightforward, because Americans – for better or worse – are far more straightforward. Americans are more obvious and direct. This is often clearly exemplified in an American detective drama.

“Did you fucking kill that girl?”

“Fuck you!”

“I asked a question. Did you kill her?”

“I didn’t do nothing.”

“Her intestines were inside your shoes, asshole.”

“She was a whore!”

“You have the right to remain silent…”

“I’ll kill you next!”

In contrast, the British are far less direct. They rely more on subtext, implication, and reading between the lines. As a British colleague said about it once, “It’s more about what’s not said than what is said.” This is certainly the case in Morse, who negotiates his investigation around a bunch of murder suspects in a roundabout, indirect way.

“Did you brush your teeth on Tuesday, Mr. Rider?”

“Just what are you trying to say?”

“Tuesday was a busy day, was it not?”

“I wouldn’t know.”

“You’ve lovely shoes, Mr. Rider.”

“It’s difficult to find good shoes these days, Morse. As you know.”

“Indeed. We had better go. Lewis, take him to the car.”

“Oh, go on.”

With ten minutes left in the episode it becomes clear that the paraplegic’s death was actually an assisted suicide. It turns out that the paraplegic, his plain wife, and the suicide doctor all conspired to frame the womanizing alcoholic. This was because he was sleeping with the doctor’s horribly scarred wife and while he was doing it accidentally killed his wife and daughter, who were the deceased’s daughter and granddaughter. This explains the mysterious road accident as well as the horrible scar, since she got the scar saving the womanizer from the wreck.

I shout “I knew that scar was suspicious. Can’t blame everything on Guy Fawkes!”

I mark down my episode notes and feel a certain pride that I pinpointed the widow as the lead suspect with twenty minutes remaining. I’m getting better. Next episode Morse and Lewis go to Australia. And while I am excited and nervous, I do wonder what effects another variety of English in another hemisphere will have on my Morse Code.

For more on American vs British English, check out this absolutely hilarious and completely accurate routine from Eddie Izzard.

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