Each December many families gather around the television, or go to a school pageant or community theater and watch some version of A Christmas Carol written by Charles Dickens. And when the show is over, the audience is left with a feeling of good cheer and a determination to be extra nice to everyone they love. Some may even ponder the genius of an author who could have such a profound and lasting effect on generations during the holiday season.
So, I’m sure that the first thought today’s readers have about Charles Dickens would not be as a crime writer. Yet there he was, during a time when writing about crime was a fledgling pursuit, putting the mysterious side of life squarely in his stories. A quick review of novels written by Dickens gives us an obvious link to his status as a leader in the development of fiction about crime and criminals. In one of Dickens’ earliest works, Oliver Twist, which was serialized in Bentley’s Miscellany from 1837 to 1839, we meet the master criminal Fagin who seduces young homeless boys and turns them into criminals. Oliver Twist is the source of this famous bit of dialogue that suits crime readers much more than anything Tiny Tim had to say: “If the law supposes that,” said Mr. Bumble, “the law is a ass, a idiot.”
Charles Dickens didn’t become famous as a writer of mystery/detective fiction, as it was not a commonly defined genre during his lifetime. But as we look back, he was definitely a master of the craft. In Bleak House, there is a mystery and a detective. Dickens was supremely interested in the activities of the recently formed Metropolitan Police force and modeled Inspector Bucket in the novel, on the real-life Inspector Field. Even the more humorous Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit has a murder as part of the story and a private detective, named Nadgett is charged with solving it. The London and Broadway stages were venues for the famous musical based on The Mystery of Edwin Drood, a novel about Drood’s disappearance left unfinished due to the author’s death.
And then there are the short stories and vignettes that Dickens wrote throughout his career. For several years, Dickens worked on a project called Master Humphrey’s Clock. This weekly series of stories and essays were written as if they were told by Master Humphrey’s friends while sitting around his grandfather clock. Topics spanned from humor to horror. One of the most famous Master Humphrey stories, “Confession Found in a Prison in the Time of Charles the Second,” is widely considered to be a supernatural or horror story. But I think it is primarily a tale about a heinous crime which is remarkably similar in plot and tone to Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell Tale Heart,” published a few years later.
In Household Words, a weekly magazine that Charles Dickens wrote and edited from 1850 to 1859, he often continued to explore his fascination with professional detectives in such short pieces as “The Detective Police” and “On Duty with Inspector Field.” Wilkie Collins was also an editor of Household Words and co-authored a number of stories with Dickens. Collins is widely credited as being a founding father of detective fiction even though his seminal novel, The Moonstone, was actually published much later than most of the Dickens’ novels that included crime, detectives, or both.
So, while we consider Dickens to be a writer who wrote many classics of English literature during his prolific lifetime, it’s important that we don’t forget his steadfast contributions to crime and detective fiction during the very early days of the genre.
According to Terrie, writing short mystery fiction is nearly as much fun as hanging out with any or all of her seven grandchildren. One of her recent shorts can be found in the anthology Crimes By Moonlight, and another can be read on the Beat To A Pulp website. Terrie blogs with the Women of Mystery.