An age-old story of friction in the world of fiction

INSPECTOR MORSE is no more. Diabetes finally got him, rather than a hail of gunfire from an Oxfordshire recidivist or a poisoned Scotch from a discarded lady friend. But the manner of his departure from this life is a remarkable thing.

In chapter 75 of The Remorseful Day, published yesterday, he pegs out in hospital after suffering a diabetic coma; his last words are "Thank Lewis for me." In chapter 76, Lewis utters the words "Chief Inspector Morse is dead." In chapter 77, he puts his lips to the dead detective's head and says "Goodbye, sir." In chapter 79, there's a tribute to Morse from the Police Commissioner...

In other words, Colin Dexter kills off Morse in no uncertain terms. He utterly destroys the uber-cop of Oxfordshire. He does for him fair and square. He leaves no possible dangling thread of hope for Morse fans that their hero will return.

If Mr Dexter finds "the lonely and demanding discipline of writing" getting too much for him at age 68, we shall completely understand. If he wants to stop, then that is his privilege. But why choose to inflict mortality on an immortal being? And why do it in so comprehensive a fashion?

The history of popular fiction is littered with characters who became bigger than their authors; who acquired a shadow-life in the public imagination that rendered them more "real" than the people who dreamt them up: Frankenstein, Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, William Brown. And the dilemma of how to get rid of your most popular creation is a fertile ground for psychological enquiry.

In one reading, the author is the parent of the character, bringing it into the world, nurturing it, giving it things to do and say, minutely notating its every move; to kill it off, therefore, is an act of shocking infanticide. It is the revenge of the sparrow who discovers that his precious child is a cuckoo, one that takes up all the available space in the nest and requires insane amounts of sustenance for an unconscionable time.

Another reading suggests that the relationship between author and character is a battle between ego and superego, in which the latter has all the best lines and gets all the praise, while the former droops, unheeded, in the background.

Hence the cruel fate that awaits the fictional superstar. But look how ambivalently most authors kill off their characters. Arthur Conan Doyle came to detest Sherlock Holmes and resent the ascetic sleuth's domination of his life. But rather than have him, say, decapitated by Professor Moriarty, he had both men disappear into the Reichenbach Falls - an off- stage, reported not-quite-death, as if Doyle were afraid of describing the corpse of his immortal creation. And, of course, it made it easier to bring him back from the dead. Anthony Burgess's irascible poet Enderby snarls, belches, farts and composes through three books and seems to check out, from heart failure, at the end of The Clockwork Testament, only to be revivified in Enderby's Dark Lady.

Mr Dexter therefore stands alone when it comes to the tricky business of topping your star performer. But - the question keeps coming back - why kill them off at all? Since fictional characters are immortal, reborn for successive generations of readers, why not leave them endlessly circling the fictional universe on the Great Wheel of Reincarnation, while the author steps off into Nirvana? Why treat them like real men (or women, although the vast majority of players in this curious game are male) and have them grow old?

The answer lies, it seems, in that age-old friction between creator and created. We must consider the possibility that Colin Dexter could not bear to think of his beloved Morse sitting in a bar in Jericho, morosely regarding his whisky, with no case to solve, no career and no conversation; that he killed him rather than have him die of boredom.

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