The Master of Sleuths Takes a Bow

Avid readers of detective fiction might guess the answers.

Who wears the laurel for creating the first significant, crinkled-browed, all-knowing detective in British literature? To what writer do Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler, Tony Hillerman, and Arthur Conan Doyle all owe spiritual homage?

Two questions, the same answer: Charles Dickens. Edgar Alan Poe may get credit for formalizing the modern genre in 1841. But Dickens set the mold for how a detective should behave.

Start with either skinny Mr. Nadgett in Dickens's "Martin Chuzzlewit" (1844) or the more full-bodied Inspector Bucket in "Bleak House" (1853). Both men tethered clues to rascals and scoundrels and exposed their guilt, although Bucket did it with consummate intelligence and precision.

And, according to Peter Owen, the editor of "Hunted Down: The Detective Stories of Charles Dickens," Bucket's wife also "deserves the title of the first female amateur detective in fiction."

Dickens perfected the heart of a genre: the summation that solves the mystery. He found the meaning behind the dirt on the boot that left the smudge on the rug where the bits of glass were sprinkled, and thus led to the only person who wore the boot and held the glass. You there, Julius Slinkton, are the murderer!

In typical triumph in the story "Inspector Bucket's Job," Inspector Bucket says, "the last point in the case which I am now going to mention, shows the necessity of patience in our business and never doing a thing in a hurry," just as he reveals Mademoiselle Hortense as the murderess.

What Dickens never does with his narrative in this collection of short stories and episodes from his books is put the reader at the scene of the crime while the dastardly deed is happening.

Many detective and mystery writers today, competing in a swiftly moving, more visually oriented culture, paint their stories with leanness and more immediacy than Dickens who savored sleuthing.

Specialties within the genre abound today. Some writers excel with dialogue, others weave intricate plots or follow flawed but lovable characters. Dickens was the seed for all.

In "Nemesis," the first episode in the collection, Nadgett arrives late upon the scene like Peter Falk with "just a few more observations, please." Previously, Jonas Chuzzlewit, the cad of a murderer, has deflected suspicion from himself while worrying to the reader over what he has done to the victim. Still, just before Nadgett arrives, Jonas hopes to slip through the confusion to safety.

The delightfully antiquated prose in the story, at times pulsing with melodrama, matches Dickens's enthusiasm for the subject of misplaced passion revealed.

As early as the "Pickwick Papers" (1837) Dickens uses an officer of the law in Constable Daniel Crummer, but as a character of mild contempt. Later, after Dickens meets working officers and accompanies them into the dreary London streets at night, he takes his readers into the underworld with respect for the newly created Scotland Yard.

All of Dickens's hallmarks are here, the rollicking names - Chevy Slyme, Sergeants Dornton and Mith, Mr. Bat, Sir Leicester Dedlock - and the quick, vivid descriptions of time and place.

*David Holmstrom is a Monitor staff writer.

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