Time and place cannot bind Mr. Bucket. Like man in the abstract, he is here to-day and gone to-morrow — but, very unlike man indeed, he is here again the next day. (Bleak House 654)

Background

decorated initial 'A' based on a Thackeray illustrationkin to tracking, sleuthing comes naturally to man, whether from baser motives like curiosity and revenge, or from higher ones like maintaining order in a social group. Even the earliest known narratives, from classical and Biblical times, have some rudiments of whodunits (see Rzepka 16). But the beginnings of the modern detective novel are generally traced to the French roman policier of the 1820s, and, around the time of the formal establishment of police forces in France and England, to the Newgate novels of the next decade. Oliver Twist (1838), partly set in the criminal underworld, and featuring a Police Magistrate, Bow Street officers, and an important court scene, belongs to this era, though detection is all of an amateur variety. Professional detectives, whether acting within the police force or as regular "private eyes," could emerge only when the profession itself was fully established. John Sutherland credits Edgar Allan Poe's Murders in the Rue Morgue (1843) with being "probably the first fully evolved detective story in English," and sees Inspector Bucket in Dickens's Bleak House (1852-53) as "the first police detective" in our fiction (180). Bucket is too much his own man to provide a blueprint; but, in more ways than one, he points the way towards his famous descendants.

The Character and Role of Inspector Bucket

Inspector Bucket in Dickens's Bleak House, by J. Clayton Clarke ("Kyd"), displaying his "fat forefinger" (Bleak House, 654). Source: New York Public library Digital Gallery, digital ID 1206186, record ID 481098; slightly modified. Click on the image for a larger picture, and on all the other images here for more information.

Inspector Bucket, as suggested by his rather comical name, makes it his business to dredge up all sorts of secrets — and is also a repository of many of the attributes later associated with fictional detectives. The most immediately noticeable of these is a certain indefinable "difference," or "otherness." He arrives on stage mysteriously: there is something "ghostly" about his first appearance. When the "stoutly built, steady-looking, sharp-eyed man in black, of about the middle-age" suddenly materialises in the lawyer Mr Tulkinghorn's room in Chapter XXII of the novel, the law-stationer Mr Snagsby, who is already there, wonders if he has come out of the cupboard, even though its hinges have not creaked, nor has a step been audible upon the floor" (282).

Heralded by this touch of magic, Bucket continues to have an enigmatic, unpredictable presence. With his "attentive face, and his hat and stick in his hands, and his hands behind him," he notices absolutely everything. Snagsby feels he looks at him as if he is "going to take his portrait" (282). His gimlet eyes may well reflect Dickens's interest in the development of photography, and his sense of its potential as well as its limitations for use in criminal cases (see Thomas 146). These eyes can certainly discomfit others: when Bucket proceeds to the slums of Tom-all-Alone's with Snagsby, police constables stare off into space as he passes by, and young blades, looking round when touched by his cane, simply vanish. In himself, too, he possesses a singular power: with his "confidential manner, impossible to be evaded or declined" (326), he can get people like the kindly Snagsby to do his bidding, even, as the saying goes, to "come along" with him, whether innocent like George Rouncewell (suspect in the murder of the lawyer Mr Tulkinghorn), or guilty like Mademoiselle Hortense (Lady Dedlock's maid, the actual culprit). The latter case is the more extraordinary, with Bucket "enfolding and pervading her like a cloud, and hovering away with her as if he were a homely Jupiter and she the object of his affections" (683).

"Friendly behaviour of Mr Bucket," by Phiz (Hablot K. Browne), 1853. George Rouncewell is visiting the Bagnets on the occasion of Mrs Bagnet's birthday when Mr Bucket drops in. Bucket takes two of the Bagnet children, Quebec and Malta, on his knee, saying "My name's Bucket. Ain't that a funny name?" (618). He listens to their brother Woolwich, George's godson, playing the fife, and observes George carefully for signs of guilt, since he seems to have been there when Tulkinghorn was murdered. George (centre) is doing his best to be cheerful, but he has been deeply shocked by the sad death of Jo, the young crossing-sweeper.

Chameleon-like, Bucket can fade right into the background, whether as an observer or as a "composed and quiet listener"(282), perhaps in the guise of a pedestrian in the street who "seems in some indefinable manner to lurk and lounge" (284). But he can change — pouf! — just like that. Much as he can suddenly veer in a different direction out of doors, he can become the very life and soul of a party indoors. As the "sparkling stranger" who enlivens Mrs Bagnet's birthday gathering (620), for instance, he entertains everyone with a rendition of "Believe me, if all those endearing young charms." Yet, unbeknownst to them, he is about to pounce on one of their number; it is at the end of this very episode that he arrests the good-hearted George on suspicion of murdering Tulkinghorn.

Bucket's geniality is not just assumed, but it does work to soften things up, and thus to catch people off their guard. Not exactly a trick, it nevertheless serves a purpose. With his "fondness for society and his adaptability to all grades" (662), he can insinuate himself into any company and capitalise on the confidence he inspires. Later, he even wins the respect of Sir Leicester Dedlock after his apocalyptic fit: "Of all men upon earth, Sir Leicester seems fallen from his high estate to place his sole trust and reliance upon this man" (701). Such is his standing that Bucket's own respect too is worth having. This he bestows on the heroine of the novel, Esther Summerson, appreciating her calm good sense and conduct in difficult circumstances: "You're a pattern, you are," said Mr Bucket warmly, "You're a pattern" (736), and we are bound to agree with him.

Bucket is undoubtedly special. He has a notable and often-noted characteristic: a large index finger, often "in an impressive state of action" (622). He counts off points on it, waves it in the air to emphasise what he says, prods people (like poor George) with it, and rubs it on his own face to sharpen his own senses. On the occasion of Tulkinghorn's funeral,

Mr. Bucket and his fat forefinger are much in consultation together.... When Mr. Bucket has a matter of this pressing interest under his consideration, the fat forefinger seems to rise, to the dignity of a familiar demon. He puts it to his ears, and it whispers information; he puts it to his lips, and it enjoins him to secrecy; he rubs it over his nose, and it sharpens his scent; he shakes it before a guilty man, and it charms him to his destruction. The Augurs of the Detective Temple invariably predict that when Mr. Bucket and that finger are in much conference, a terrible avenger will be heard of before long. (654)

To a lesser extent, Bucket also has that trait of later detectives — including the lawyer Mr Pedgift, Senior, in Wilkie Collins's Armadale (1864-66) — of returning from the door with some clinching query: "Mr. Bucket makes his three bows and is withdrawing when a forgotten point occurs to him" (661). On this particular occasion, his question concerns the Reward-bill that Sir Leicester has posted on his own stairway. Does it suggest the possibility that someone in the household killed Tulkinghorn, or knew who did kill him? A moment later, Bucket is questioning the footman, quite productively, too.

The Pursuit of Lady Dedlock: Left: "The Lonely Figure." Right: "The Night," both by Phiz (Hablot K. Browne), 1853.

The ultimate source of Bucket's power over others, and over circumstances, is his intelligence. He is almost superhumanly quick on the uptake. A look, or a gesture, or a word, can all be enough for him. Later, when the secret Tulkinghorn possessed is revealed, and with it Lady Dedlock's past, Sir Leicester is struck down by a seizure. He only has to look towards a small box, and Bucket understands at once, fetches the box for him, opens it with the particular key indicated (again, by the sick man's mere look), takes out and counts the money inside for his expenses, and intimates that he knows he can exceed that sum if necessary. With these funds, he knows, he is to exert himself to the utmost to find Lady Dedlock, who has fled the house. All this he does and understands with the speed of thought: "The velocity and certainty of Mr Bucket on all these heads is nothing short of miraculous" (701). His subsequent hot pursuit of the now desperate woman, on Sir Leicester's but also Esther's behalf as Lady Dedlock's illegitimte daughter, is guided by all the clues he has picked up about her, and is able to pick up now.

Literally as well as metaphorically, Bucket's sense of direction is exceptional. Having failed to catch up with his quarry, and finally realising that he has been chasing someone wearing her dress rather than the woman herself, he finds the complicated way back to London with extraordinary ease. "The steadiness and confidence with which he had directed our journey back, I could not account for," says Esther, ensconced on the carriage with him as they search for her benighted mother (735). For these reasons, we too feel drawn to him. As Peter Thoms says, "in the dark, perplexing world of Bleak House he is a guide we would like to trust" (94).

It has to be said that Bucket enjoys the chase. On their tiring and anxious journey, Esher, sensitive and intelligent in her own way, notes that he is "kept fresh by a certain enjoyment of the work in which he is engaged" (718). To enjoy ferreting out people's deepest secrets, often much to the detriment of their relationships and reputation, if not to their very lives, suggests hardness of heart. Yet even as he unfolds his satisfyingly "beautiful case" to Sir Leicester (660), he does seem to exhibit a "touch of compassion" for the once arrogant man (665). Bucket is not unfeeling. He has already shown himself capable of kindness. On his earlier visit with Snagsby to the bricklayers' wives in Tom-all-Alone's (the dreadful slum shown on the right, in another illustration by Phiz), there was a touching scene in which he took an interest in a tiny baby: "He is not at all rough about it; and ... turns his light gently on the infant" (287), causing Mr. Snagsby to think of the haloed infant Jesus. To Esther herself Bucket is from the start "really very kind and gentle," impressing her from the outset of their mission to find her mother with his "sagacity" (708). On the whole, says the narrator, he is "a benignant philosopher not disposed to be severe upon the follies of mankind" (654), and is perfectly justified in telling Esther's guardian Mr Jarndyce that he has a "humane heart" (704).

Not unexpectedly, then, though he is often away from home, Bucket is a married man. He is not a solitary person, as most later detectives are, nor does he need a companion to situate him in the everyday world, or serve as his foil, as they so often do. A solid middle-class man, he is not only married, but happily married too. In this respect he is a perfectly fit representative of the "emerging bourgeois class of experts" (Thomas 12). He is both fond of and proud of his wife, calling her "a woman in fifty thousand — in a hundred and fifty thousand!" (680). For Mrs Bucket, we learn, is a true helpmeet, an amateur detective in her own right. Her husband is able to make full use of her skills. For example, on the day of the lawyer's funeral, he himself keeps a sly look-out from a carriage, while stationing her on the steps of Mr Tulkinghorn's house beside the couple's mysterious lodger:

"And there you are, my partner, eh?" says Mr. Bucket to himself, apostrophizing Mrs. Bucket, stationed, by his favour, on the steps of the deceased's house. "And so you are. And so you are! And very well indeed you are looking, Mrs. Bucket!" ... "And our lodger with you!"(655)

Mrs Bucket's surveillance will prove immensely helpful to him. As others have pointed out, her involvement in her detective husband's work is unusual in the annals of detective fiction, and will remain so (see Thomas 306, n. 25).

Bucket is human enough, then, and a part of this is that he is fallible. One instance of this is his arrest of Mr George — though it is doubtful that he ever really suspects him, or suspects him for long. More worryingly and disastrously, Lady Dedlock manages to trick him for quite a while simply by changing into unlikely attire. However, he is undeterred by setbacks. After intelligence (the sine qua non of a detective), his most important quality is perseverance. He works pertinaciously to get at the truth, whatever it is, and eventually does uncover it, whatever the consequences. When he does so, he can, if appropriate, hold court and quash the opposition, as when he finally clears away unwelcome visitors, and arrests Mademoiselle Hortense for Tulkinghorn's murder in the presence of Sir Leicester. Revealing that the Frenchwoman was his mysterious lodger, that his wife has been spying on her, and that she has indeed incriminated herself, he could be any latter-day detective presenting "the array of events leading up to the crime and the array of events by which the detective himself arrived at the correct sequence of the first array" (Rzpeka 19). He is almost like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat in front of an audience, albeit, now, only Sir Leicester.

Though Dickens himself denied it, there is much to suggest that Bucket was based on a real person with whom he had struck up a friendship, Inspector Charles Frederick Field [1805-74] of the Metropolitan Police, who later became a private detective (see Hawes 30-31). The most telling evidence comes from Dickens's Household Words essay of 27 July 1850, "A Detective Police party," in which Inspector "Wield" is described as having "a habit of emphasising his conversation by the aid of a corpulent forefinger, which is constantly in juxta-position with his eyes and nose" (409). Field, who had been involved in amateur dramatics (see Ackroyd 326), tells a lively tale, with great relish, in the essay. Dickens hardly needed such help, but Bucket's grounding in reality might have been an element in producing a credible as well as a somewhat mysterious and exaggerated character. It may even have contributed to this character's occupying his groundbreaking role in the history of detective fiction.

The Future

Mr Bucket is an inspirational detective, then — perhaps especially in his "confident showmanship in unfolding his case," a showmanship so confident and so mesmerising that it "reminds us of the authorial mastery of Dickens himself" (Thoms 94). But can we call the work in which he features a detective novel? No, surely not. Too much else is happening in it, including the whole Chancery plot. With its reflections on the law, on philanthropy, on the whole spectrum of human behaviour, Bleak House is too rich and complex in theme to be identified simply by its detective element. T. S. Eliot considered Wilkie Collins's The Moonstone, featuring Sergeant Cuff of Scotland Yard, "the first and greatest of English detective novels" (464). But Collins too painted a large canvas with a broader palette, and the work is more usefully seen as an example of sensation fiction. More recently, The Moonstone has also been interpreted as a critique of imperialism. Similar points may be made about other mid-Victorian novels featuring detectives, such as Mrs Henry Wood's The Channings (1862) and Roland Yorke (1869), in which Jonas Butterby's role adds spice to the plots but contributes little to the author's religious theme.

But there is more to this question than simply a superabundance of narrative threads or themes in these works. There is the question of what specifically constitutes a detective story.

Granting the reader access to information essential to solving the mystery is thought by many modern readers and critics (at least nowadays) to by crucial to stories of detection. Just as crucial, to those holding this view, is withholding from the readers for as long as possible the complete solution to the mystery. (Rzepka 11)

Bleak House fails these tests in each of the two important mysteries in the plot. Too many clues are given in the case of Lady Dedlock's past: in Chapter VII the ghost of the Dedlocks' house has already begun to walk; in Chapter XXIX, the law clerk Mr Guppy, who was much struck by Lady Dedlock's portrait in that earlier chapter, brings to her (and our) attention her likeness to Esther. On the other hand, Bucket reveals important evidence about Tulkinghorn's murder, from his wife's surveillance of Mademoiselle Hortense, only after the case has been solved. Peter Keating is surely right to point out that it was not until the late Victorian period that "literary specialisation began to divide popular fiction into distinctive sub-genres" (341), and that novels appeared to which these tests can be more successfully applied. Sherlock Holmes would make his triumphant entrance in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Study in Scarlet only in 1887.

References

Ackroyd, Peter. Dickens. London: Vintage, 2012. Print.

Dickens, Charles. Bleak House. London: Penguin Popular Classics, 1994. Print.

_____. "A Detective Police Party." Household Words. Vol 1, No. 18. 27 July 1850. 409-414. Internet Archive. Web. 2 December 2013.

Eliot, T. S. "Wilkie Collins and Dickens" (1927). Selected Essays. 3rd ed. London: Faber, 1951. 460-70. Print.

Hawes, Donald. Who's Who in Dickens. Oxford: Routledge, 2002. Print.

Keating, Peter. The Haunted Study: A Social History of the English Novel, 1875-1914. London: Secker & Warburg, 1989. Print.

Rzepka, Charles J. Detective Fiction. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2005. Print.

Sutherland, John. The Longman Companion to Victorian Fiction. London: Longman, 1988. Print.

Thomas, Ronald R. Detective Fiction and the Rise of Forensic Science. Pbk ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Print.

Thoms, Peter. Detection and Its Designs: Narrative and Power in 19th-century Detective Fiction. Athens, OH.: University of Ohio Press, 1998. Print.


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Last modified 2 December 2013