Charles Dickens Mystery & Detective Fiction Analysis
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...
(The entire section is 1,842 words.)