Crime and imprisonment are frequent themes in the novels of Charles Dickens; few modern readers are unaware of the efforts of Fagin to ensnare the young Oliver Twist into a life of crime, and few are unaware of the horrible significance of the Bastille and the guillotine in A Tale of Two Cities. Nevertheless, Dickens’s most important works to focus on the nature of crime are Bleak House, the plot of which is the classic mystery-story pattern of the effort to uncover secret guilt, and The Mystery of Edwin Drood, that famous unfinished detective novel that has so piqued the interest of numerous amateur sleuths.
Because Dickens spent much time in his early life as a court reporter, he published several minor works focusing on mysterious murder and detective investigations even before Bleak House and The Mystery of Edwin Drood. An early Dickens story, “A Confession Found in a Prison in the Time of Charles the Second,” written in 1841, which has been suggested as the source of Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Tell-Tale Heart,” focuses on the obsession to commit murder. In “Three Detectives: Anecdotes,” published in the early 1850’s, Dickens deals with the methods of the detective branch of the newly created Metropolitan Police Force.
The first of his full-length novels to deal with a mysterious murder and an investigative effort to discover the murderer, however, is Barnaby Rudge: A Tale of the Riots of ’80 (1841), a historical novel that primarily deals with the Gordon Riots of 1780 and the attack on Newgate Prison. It is a novel of various strands that do not always successfully come together; the subplot of Barnaby Rudge most relevant to the detective genre focuses on the efforts of Geoffrey Haredale to find the murderer of his brother, even though it is obvious throughout that the villain is the father of the idiot boy, Barnaby Rudge. The novel is also important in the history of detective fiction in that the great amateur detective Edgar Allan Poe deduced the plot and the ending of the story after having read only the first two serial installments, deduced it so accurately, in fact, that Dickens himself was reported to be astonished by his accuracy.
It is with the publication of Bleak House that Dickens makes the most extensive use in a major novel of the motif of secret crime and detection. Inspector Bucket, who is introduced about midway through the novel, in a chapter entitled simply “Mr. Bucket,” is said to be the first professional detective in English crime fiction. Indeed, since the novel was published, it has been generally assumed that Bucket is based on Inspector Charles Frederick Field, one of the most famous detectives of his time and the subject of an earlier nonfictional article by Dickens. A professional rather than an amateur detective like Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin, the methodical Bucket is a harbinger of the numerous inspectors of Scotland Yard who populated twentieth century detective fiction.
Bleak House stands as a milestone in history for another reason. Its entire plot—from the ominous fog that hangs, both literally and figuratively, over the law courts at Chancery at the novel’s beginning to the death of Lady Dedlock at its end—follows what has come to be recognized as the classic pattern of the detective novel. It is only when the crucial final discoveries of Lady Dedlock’s secret and the significance of her lawyer’s murder make all the seemingly disconnected events meaningful that the latent structure of the work becomes manifest and the novel achieves the kind of closure associated with the classics of the detective genre.
Although when Bleak House was first published some reviewers complained that it had no plot, more recent critics have perceived the elaborate symbolic parallels and contrasts between characters and events that make up the intricate mystery pattern of the novel. Edgar Johnson, one of Dickens’s most perceptive critics, argues that the plot of the novel is like a whirlpool that circles faster and tighter until it draws all the characters into its destructive funnel. At the center of the whirlpool is Lady Dedlock, whose secret indiscretion threatens to be revealed until her blackmailing solicitor, Tulkinghorn, is mysteriously murdered. As Inspector Bucket proceeds to solve the mystery of the murder, the symbolic web of the case of Jarndyce versus Jarndyce in the law courts at Chancery fatefully ensnares all who become involved in it. A powerful work that transcends its sensation-novel model, Bleak House not only satirizes the baroque complexity of the law but also constructs a profound symbolic microcosm of the complex mysteries of human hopes and secret sins.
The Mystery of Edwin Drood
Although Bleak House is his most brilliant novel to make use of the detective-story model, the most famous work to establish Dickens as a master of the detective genre is the uncompleted and, compared to Bleak House, uncomplicated The Mystery of Edwin Drood. The story of its origin and the reported assumptions about Dickens’s intentions for it have been told many times. According to Dickens’s biographers, Dickens planned the work in an effort to beat Wilkie Collins (whose novel The Woman in White, 1860, has been credited with creating the English detective story) at his own game.
The central character in Dickens’s novel is not Edwin Drood but rather his uncle, John Jasper, the choirmaster of Cloisterham, who in the first scene of the book is found in a squalid opium den. The plot revolves around the mysterious disappearance of Drood, a student engineer who has come to stay with his uncle. Although Dickens’s death prevented him from solving the mystery of Drood’s disappearance, the existing parts of the novel suggest quite clearly the villain’s identity. Drood has been betrothed to the orphaned Rosa Bud since childhood, but Jasper’s behavior around Rosa makes it obvious that he is obsessed by her. Although Jasper seems the most apparent suspect, the plot is complicated by the involvement of Neville Landless and his sister Helena, who have recently arrived from Ceylon. Landless, a passionate, swarthy man, also admires Rosa and strongly dislikes Drood, with whom he argues. After Drood’s disappearance during a storm, Landless is the most likely suspect, especially since shortly thereafter he also disappears. Adding to the mystery is the arrival of a stranger in Cloisterham named Dick Datchery, whose white-haired appearance makes it clear that he is in disguise. The novel ends with Jasper’s return to the opium den and its owner. Opium Sal, hearing him mumble in his stupor about having done something.
Although there seems little mystery here to be unraveled, detective-story aficionados have long been fascinated with what The Mystery of Edwin Drood leaves untold. First of all, there is the mystery of Jasper. Although he seems to be the villain of the piece, the novel never makes it clear that he has committed any crime. The one bit of external evidence for his guilt has been reported by Dickens’s friend and biographer John Forster, who wrote that Dickens said one feature of the story was to be the discovery by the murderer that he did not have to commit the murder to achieve his objective. Because the reader finds in the section of the novel that Dickens completed that Rosa and Edwin agree to break their betrothal, it seems clear that if Jasper did kill Drood because of his desire for Rosa, then that act indeed was unnecessary.
The second mystery is the fate of Edwin Drood. Some readers have suggested that because Dickens considered using other titles for the novel, such as “The Disappearance of Edwin Drood” or “Edwin Drood in Hiding,” Drood is not even dead. In fact, of the many theories accounting for the novel’s conclusion, roughly one-third take this approach. The third mystery revolves around the character Dick Datchery, who seems to be one of the other characters in disguise. Although the most likely candidate is Neville Landless, come back in disguise to discover the true murderer of Drood and thus clear himself, other readers have suggested several other characters in the novel, including Drood himself.
The most basic reason that detective-story fans are fascinated with resolving the mystery of a story that seems so utterly lacking in mystery is one of the most powerful conventions of the detective story itself: The most obvious suspect for the crime is often not the criminal at all. Although Jasper is the only character in the novel who seems to have the personality and the motive for killing Drood, many readers refuse to believe that Dickens intended to make the solution so easy, especially if he were indeed interested in showing Collins that he could beat him at his own genre.
What makes The Mystery of Edwin Drood, in spite of its uncompleted status, a powerful work is its consideration of one of the central concerns of nineteenth century fiction—a man split between powerful instinctive urges and his sense of social responsibility. Although Poe in the United States and Fyodor Dostoevski in Russia also dealt with this theme of the double nature of man, the most famous work in English fiction to focus on it is Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886). John Jasper, like Dr. Jekyll, has his socially respectable side as the choirmaster of Cloisterham; nevertheless, hiding within him are powerful erotic urges and drug-induced hallucinations that make him seem like the bestial Mr. Hyde. The way the novel deals with the Freudian conflict between the urge-driven Id and the socially responsible Superego within the detective-story genre accounts for much of its power.
More readers have been concerned with the practical mysteries of the unfinished plot of the book, however, than they have with its thematic implications. A critical industry of Droodiana has grown up around The Mystery of Edwin Drood as numerous readers and critics have tried to solve the mystery or provide their own ending. An early effort to write the missing ending, Richard Anthony Proctor’s Watched by the Dead: A Loving Study of Dickens’ Half-Told Tale (1887), takes the approach, since followed by various stage versions of the story, that Drood is not dead at all. The best-known film version of the novel, a 1935 film with Claude Rains as John Jasper, however, “finishes” the story by making Neville Landless, disguised as Dick Datchery, the obvious hero and thus the means by which Jasper is revealed as the murderer of Drood.
Dickens, the most widely read novelist of the Victorian era, and still the best-known writer of that period, has the enviable distinction of being both a best-selling author who knew precisely how to create memorable characters and involve his readers in powerful, page-turning stories and a critically acclaimed artist who was able to make use of popular melodramatic and sensational fictional modes to explore the secret mysteries of human motivation and the complications of living within the social contract.