Thursday, August 5, 2021

Quote of the Day (Charles Dickens, on an Early Victorian Detective)

“Inspector Field is the bustling speaker. Inspector Field's eye is the roving eye that searches every corner of the cellar as he talks. Inspector Field's hand is the well-known hand that has collared half the people here, and motioned their brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, male and female friends, inexorably to New South Wales. Yet Inspector Field stands in this den, the Sultan of the place. Every thief here cowers before him, like a schoolboy before his schoolmaster. All watch him, all answer when addressed, all laugh at his jokes, all seek to propitiate him. This cellar company alone—to say nothing of the crowd surrounding the entrance from the street above, and making the steps shine with eyes—is strong enough to murder us all, and willing enough to do it; but, let Inspector Field have a mind to pick out one thief here, and take him; let him produce that ghostly truncheon from his pocket, and say, with his business-air, 'My lad, I want you!' and all Rats' Castle shall be stricken with paralysis, and not a finger move against him, as he fits the handcuffs on!”—English novelist Charles Dickens (1812-1870), “On Duty With Inspector Field,” in Household Words, June 14, 1851, reprinted in The Dead Witness: A Connoisseur's Collection of Victorian Detective Stories, edited by Michael Sims (2012)

While editing the weekly magazine Household Words in the early 1850s, Charles Dickens sometimes published his own work—roughly 100 stories and articles in the first three years of its existence. Although much of this output reflected his longtime concerns—notably, housing, education, factory life—another aspect of urban poverty began to grip him: crime.

In particular, he became fascinated with London’s Metropolitan Police, established by Robert Peel in 1829. Thirteen years later, Charles Frederick Field became one of the first members of its Detective Department.

Chief Inspector Field would have appealed to Dickens for his plain-spoken manner, his rich fund of stories drawn from his work, and, through his disguises in pursuit of wrongdoers, his flair for the dramatic.

But, as the quote above indicates, Dickens also valued Field and his colleagues as stalwart bulwarks against the disorder that the novelist saw as increasingly threatening London. That sense had been further validated earlier in 1851 when Field apprehended Charles Gill, a would-be assassin of British Prime Minister Lord John Russell.

Upon retiring from the Detective Department at age 47 in 1852, Field set up shop as a private investigator, a trade he continued to ply for the next dozen years.

But even before he left the London police force, Field had left such an indelible impression that Dickens used him as the model for “Inspector Bucket” in the 1853 novel Bleak House—which, as noted in Claire Tomalin’s 2011 biography of the writer, is “a mystery story, a whodunnit, as well as an account of English society.”

The conventions of the mystery story—and especially of the police procedural—are so well established by now that it’s hard to imagine what it was like at its beginnings. But Dickens in effect set the prototype for Inspector Morse, Christopher Foyle, DCI Banks, Jane Tennison, and other British TV detectives with this metropolitan investigator as implacably determined to ferret out the truth as he was compassionate towards the victims of crime.

(Inspector Bucket also figures in the BBC mashup series Dickensian. I find it delicious that the Irish actor Stephen Rea—shown here in the role—played this pillar of Victorian England.)

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