Thursday, October 19, 2017

“Hunted Down: The Detective Stories of Charles Dickens”

In the introduction to Hunted Down: The Detective Stories of Charles Dickens, British author and Journalist Peter Haining (1940-2007) argues that Charles Dickens (1812-1870) deserves more credit than he gets as one of the fathers, if not the father, of the literary genre we know today as detective stories. He makes a convincing case.

In the middle decades of the 19th century, at least three authors – Edgar Allen Poe (1809-1849), Dickens, and Wilkie Collins (1824-1889), who was a great friend of Dickens – were all writing stories that included elements of detective fiction. Dickens also wrote and published a number of articles about police detectives and how they operated in London, and these were the early days of organized police forces. And Dickens last work, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, which was unfinished at his death, was as close to being a detective novel as anything else being published at the time.

Hunted Down, first published in 1996 (I read the 2013 reprint), assembles 12 fiction and no-fiction stories by Dickens, which not only support Haining’s thesis but also demonstrate that Dickens was almost intimately familiar with the workings of the police. Roughly half of the stories are non-fiction reports, including detectives talking with Dickens about some of their well-known cases and Dickens actually shadowing detectives as they investigated various crimes. Not all of the crimes involved serious charges like murder; far more numerous were the relatively minor crimes of burglary, fraud, theft, and drunkenness.
Charles Dickens

One of Dickens’s better-known police characters is Inspector Bucket, who plays a role in the novel Bleak House. The story is about the long churning of a court case, and is based on actual events. In “Inspector Bucket’s Job,” an excerpt from Bleak House, the policeman solves a murder case with a little help from his wife, and the excerpt is fully recognizable as a classic detective story.

The title story, “Hunted Down,” has a rather unorthodox detective – the manager of a life insurance company who believes a client is arranging for insurance policies on people he intends to kill. A plan is put into motion and a trap is set, to see if the suspected villain will fall into it. (I reviewed this story by itself here.)

Hunted Down makes its case for recognizing Dickens’s contribution to creating detective fiction. Its stories are also a window into the reading entertainment and crime journalism of the 1840s to the 1860s, which would eventually lead to Sherlock Holmes and the Gaslight Era of crime fiction.

Top illustration: "Friendly behaviour of Mr Bucket," by Phiz (Hablot K. Browne), Bleak House, 1853. Bucket is holding two of the Bagnet children.

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