“A detective digs around in the garbage of people’s lives. A novelist invents people and then digs around in their garbage.”–Joe Gores

In his short anthology, Classic Mystery Stories, Douglas G. Greene pays “a tribute to the first great age of fictional sleuthing,” the stories being drawn from 1841 to 1920.  Of course, he dates the first detective story from Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue, as it is “widely acknowledged” to be the first by critics and mystery buffs alike.

As Greene notes in his introduction, “We may well enjoy suspense thrillers and psychological probings of diseased brains and even (in our guiltier moments) shoot-em-ups with plenty of AK-47s and car chases” [though writing today in the light of the Newtown shootings, these things seem very distant and far away on our scale of preferences of things to read about.  Writing and reading about such things has indeed been the very topic of a number of posts on the Internet in WordPress, all of which acknowledge our inundation with images and sounds and stories of ‘shoot-em-ups’ which make us less sensitive.  Nevertheless, I continue my post today with a sense that my interest in Greene’s book will not be unfairly mistaken as an encouragement of this sort of writing, the more especially as his book features only genuine mystery tales.]  As Greene continues, “….[W]hen it comes to the mystery story, there is nothing to rival the genuine tale of–to use Edgar Allen Poe’s word–ratiocination, wherein the detective solves the crime by investigation and observation, by using his or her wits.  In this genre fisticuffs may occasionally be acceptable–but only after the detective has already worked things out through brainpower.”

The three tales I want to mention are hardly even tales, but are instead billed as mere conversation-starters by their author.  Charles Dickens grouped them together under the title “Three ‘Detective’ Anecdotes.”  As Greene notes, “Poe’s stories were popular, but for detective fiction to become a major form of popular literature, public attitudes toward crime had to turn from sympathy for the criminal (as had been the response to the picaresque romances and Newgate Calendar tales of previous centuries) toward admiration for the law-enforcer.”  He notes that the Bow Street Runners were often “corrupt” and that it was not until the “creation of Scotland Yard in 1829” and 13 years later the “Criminal Investigation Department” (CID) that the “success and relative honesty of the Detective Police became known, [and] the old image of the crooked thief-taker was gradually replaced by the upright Bobby.”

As a journalist and an editor of Household Words, Dickens “spent nights with the police, invited almost the entire C.I.D. to the magazine’s offices for a party,” and recorded their investigations in these three anecdotes in 1850.  He was also influenced by them to write a “positive” Inspector Bucket in Bleak House in 1853, and Greene credits particularly Dickens with beginning the process of making the police detective a hero.

The first anecdote concerns a murder of a young woman, in which the predominant clue left behind is a pair of gloves under the pillow of the bed in the chamber where the young woman is found with her throat cut.  It’s a simple enough tale of attempting to find who had cleaned the gloves, in order to find out who owned them and had dropped them off at the cleaners.  Most of the story is a sort of comedy of errors of who found the gloves where and did what with them, and the story unravels as the detective finds the man who owns the gloves.  The main function of this story, however, is not so much to find the man who actually committed the crime as it is to clear the man who owns the gloves (circumstantial evidence) from having participated in the murder.  So it’s a sort of clearing away of a “red herring.”

The second anecdote concerns the apprehension of the “Swell Mob” (a gang of thieves) working Epsom Race Track on Derby Day.  The detectives get together to catch them, but the thieves manage to steal a bit of diamond jewelry off one of the three detectives anyway.  They are all caught, but when they are caught, nothing can at first be found by the two main detectives.  Finally, however, by an “artful touch” (and think here of the term “artful” in the same way as you would the phrase from another Dickens classic, “the artful dodger”), one of the detectives recovers the goods.    I’m not going to reveal exactly what this “artfulness” is, as it would ruin what is already a slight anecdote.  At the end of the story, the thief darts out of court and climbs a tree to escape, but is truly “up a tree,” because they catch him!  This combination of craft and silliness, whether drawn from real life or dreamed up totally by Dickens, has the feel of real life about it, certainly.

The third anecdote concerns a series of thefts from the medical students at “Saint Blank’s Hospital” (obviously, a particular famous hospital was in Dickens’s mind, for which he substituted the name “Blank” as was the custom of the time).  Again, even the ratiocination is not marked in this case, as it mainly consists of finding a hiding place in the cloakroom and waiting for the thief to show up and reveal himself.  Because the detective’s knowledge of men and women upon observation is concerned, however, he is able to determine just by watching the porter that the porter, though drunken, is not the man at fault.  Also, it is another case of the policeman being shown to be not only equal but superior to the thief in honesty and capacity.  Just as with the previous anecdote, there is a final bit of history given of the case after the case is officially over, in the sense that we are told that the criminal killed himself while waiting in prison.  Dickens is thus not as much concerned with heightening the drama of the tale (though a suicide is certainly dramatic) as he is with giving it a touch of verisimilitude:  the thief was a student, and the shame of being apprehended stealing from his fellow classmates and being carted off to jail contributed to his suicide itself.

Dickens’s basing of his characters (both policemen and criminals) on the types of people he was actually familiar with from his experiences as a journalist just goes to show that as melodramatic and unlikely as some of Dickens’s plots may seem to be, he did have the realistic research wherewithal to construct fairly accurate portraits of men and women, and these short anecdotes reveal Dickens in some of his most simplistic plotting.  I am greatly endebted to Greene’s selection of these anecdotes and notes for my material in this post, for though I’ve read a lot of Dickens, I had never before read these stories and realized just how close to reality Dickens could write.

For those of you who are Dickens fans, or even for those of you who are just coming to Dickens for the first time, Caroline at Beauty Is A Sleeping Cat is conducting a Dickens in December Readalong this month.  Why not drop by and participate in the readings and the conversations?  There’s nothing like a long Dickens novel to be read over the cold or at least inclement winter months when you’re trapped inside!


Filed under Articles/reviews, Literary puzzles and arguments

5 responses to ““A detective digs around in the garbage of people’s lives. A novelist invents people and then digs around in their garbage.”–Joe Gores

  1. Thanks for a wonderful contribution. How very interesting. I must admit I approahced Dickens without hardly any prior knowledge. Yes, he is a classic, yes, he is read in schools in the English speaking world… I had read A Christmas Carol before and half of David Copperfield as a child but other than that – nothing until this month. So anything about him is interesting. I didn’t know he was in contact with the police and wittnessed how they worked.
    I was immediately thinking of this horrible drama wehn i read the “shoot-em up” refrence… If this expression ever had some innocnece, now it’s definitely lost it for good.
    I think these storiesand what you write here is valuable background for Bleak House which I hope to read next. I find that there is hardly another author so perfect for winter.
    Thanks for mentioning the readalong. You could still partcipate. We post on A Christmas Carol on the 21st.


    • Thanks, Caroline, for the encouragement. I expect I might be able to read “A Christmas Carol” or look through “Bleak House” again. Dickens is definitely a wintertime sort of author. I have to say, my brother DOES do a talented rendition of the voices. He has a different voice and accent for every character. But the thing is, it takes so long to read it aloud, whereas I can speed through it in fairly quick time silently. So, maybe I will give it another look-see. At the least, I will look through “Bleak House” again.


  2. Wow. The police had such a bad rap back in earlier days? That makes it seem like a ‘return to form’ in that the crooked cop has returned as a staple of the villains stable.

    Writing what you know is a prudent way to write, as it makes the story that much more believable. Are there any times you’ve written characters where you have no experience in their ‘way of life’?


    • Well, there are only a certain number of people who can be suspects, so I guess the police have to come in for their share of the suspicion too. And as to writing “about what you know,” there are ways and ways of knowing. I’ve written characters on just a hint and a wing and a prayer and had people tell me that they could really feel the reality of that character, and written other characters who felt a little uncomfortably realistic and had people not relate, so I’m not really a good person, perhaps, to answer that particular question.


  3. Pingback: Dickens in December – Wrap up « Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

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