In 1851, Charles Dickens accompanied his friend Inspector Charles Field of Scotland Yard on a sort of ride-along, following him on his nightly beat as he walked through London, checking up on various crooks and other members of the urban hoi polloi. He wrote an article about this experience for his own magazine, the periodical Household Words, enthusiastically reporting Field’s charismatic and highly performative techniques as he interrogated and intimidated the people they encountered, in the impoverished and desolate districts through which they roamed.
In Dickens’ account of the tour, entitled “On Duty with Inspector Field,” the detective seems quite larger-than-life. He’s late to meet up with his crew because he’s patrolling the British Museum, and Dickens speculates that he is “throwing monstrous shadows on the walls and ceilings” as he wanders through the corridors, sniffing for hiding criminals with “a finer scent than the ogre’s.” When he does arrive to meet everyone before their journey through the London streets, he causes “a sensation at the station house door,” perhaps having “come fast from the ores and metals of the deep mines of the earth, and from the Parrot Gods of the South Sea Islands, and from the birds and beetles of the tropics, and from the Arts of Greece and Rome, and from the Sculptures of Nineveh, and from the traces of an elder world.” Dickens, in writing such breathless, laudatory phrases (as well as bringing his audiences a “behind the scenes” look at the police in the first place), performs a kind of magnificent authority on Field’s behalf. Field does not simply police London—by stressing the microcosmic empire of the British Museum, Dickens insinuates that Field is instrumental in policing the realm.
These emblematic characterizations of international power and reach, as well as overwrought and mythological descriptions, firmly characterize Field as an omnipresent bringer of justice. Field is not a man—he is a hero, he is a force, he is a god. It seems, with these descriptions, that the inspector might find himself pitted against monsters, and these descriptions of his invulnerability and majesty are not only intended to impress, but also to comfort. This is the man protecting London’s middle and upper-class readers from evil while they are in bed for the night.
During the course of the shift, however, the only individuals that Inspector Field protects London from are some terrified pickpockets and low-class denizens who are already in their houses for the evening, trying to sleep. He enters lodgings and wakes people up to terrorize them and shake them down. Everyone is afraid, except Field’s own posse (which also included Dickens’ colleague, the journalist W.H. Wills). Dickens’s narration notes, “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.” His power is characterized as absolute, and Dickens treats this with admiration rather than with the dismay you might expect from a writer who frequently condemned such severe schoolmasters.
Dickens switches back and forth from acclaiming Field’s imposing aura to heaping baroque descriptions of the dismal neighborhoods they reach. “How many, who amidst this compound of sickening smells, these heaps of filth, these tumbling houses, with all their vile contents, animate, and inanimate, slimily overflowing into the black road, would believe that they breathe THIS air?” To Dickens’ audiences (who would not have wandered through the poorest areas of the city after dark, unless they were slumming precisely for the thrill of it), this essay would have seemed eye-opening. He powerfully presents to his readers an entirely different world within their own city—one of pollution, contamination, and poverty. But his readers would also have found an exciting demonstration of policework. Dickens’ essay casts these inhabitants as poor, pitiable residents in one moment, and as dangerous brutes and scoundrels, in the next. “We are shut up, half-a-dozen of us, in Bark’s house in the innermost recesses of the worst part of London,” he dispatches, “in the dead of the night—the house is crammed with notorious robbers and ruffians—and not a man stirs…They know the weight of the law, and they know Inspector Field and Co. too well.” Thus, “On Duty with Inspector Field” is an especially strange piece to read because it drums up so much contradictory intrigue for such a tragic setting. The essay is enthusiastic for detective-work while also describing the terrible treatment of the urban poor (at the hands of the police, as well as through pitiful living conditions), but never addresses the connection between the two.
This was not the first time Dickens described slums, and it would not be the last. He was greatly invested in exposing the socioeconomic and living conditions of low-class Londoners, and often made working-class characters the centers of his stories. By this time he had already sympathetically written about systemic injustice in The Pickwick Papers, child exploitation of all kinds and the mistreatment of women in Oliver Twist, the abuse of children in the education system in Nicholas Nickleby, and financial hardship (to the point of beggary) in The Old Curiosity Shop, among other plights. Just three years later, he would finish his novel Hard Times, his novel most committed to social reform, addressing child labor and other institutionalized abuses, the oppression of the working classes, and even the growing issue of industrial pollution. And Dickens himself knew about penury firsthand; when he was a child, he had to leave school to work in factories after his debtor father was sent away to Marshalsea Prison.
Scholar Elizabeth Dale Samet points out that Dickens had little affinity for low-level law-enforcement officers like patrolmen or beadles, or indeed any other agents of state control and social oppression, from soldiers to landowners to aristocrats. He lampooned constables in other articles in Household Words, and his beadles in Oliver Twist are corrupt imbeciles. In Bleak House, he scoffs at Parliament and the wealthy class’s ineffective legislation to protect the working classes. However, as George Orwell mused in his 1946 essay on the writer, “the only officials whom Dickens handles with any kind of friendliness are, significantly enough, policemen.” He was fascinated by detectives. In the strangely giddy “On Duty with Inspector Field,” Dickens runs into what may be the biggest recurring hypocrisy in his career, as well as the history of popular entertainment: the insistence that police officers fighting crime provides exciting content, while avoiding that the vast majority of “crime-fighting” is ultimately the continued oppression and convenient scapegoating of society’s most vulnerable people.
In March 1852, Dickens released the first installment of Bleak House. One of his longest novels, it would arrive in 20 installments until September of the following year. It is a large, multi-plot novel with two narrators, framed by an interminable law case called Jarndyce v. Jarndyce. The novel follows the lives of several people affected by the suit, particularly three teenage wards who wind up coming together at an estate called Bleak House. Just as prominent is the sinister lawyer Mr. Tulkinghorn who begins to piece together a backstory about another beneficiary, who happens to be one of his wealthy clients. The novel’s third installment ends, at chapter ten, on a cliffhanger regarding the uncovering of a dead body. Only then does one of the novel’s plots twist into what we would now refer to as a murder mystery. And in the novel’s seventh installment, as we reach the twentieth chapter, we meet a detective whom we expect will solve the case. The first words spoken about him imply that he is no one to worry about; “Don’t mind this gentleman… this is only Mr. Bucket.”
But Mr. Bucket is an even more complicated character than the profiled Inspector Field. Like Field, Bucket is a plainclothes detective, of the newly established Detectives Division of the London Metropolitan police (founded in 1842, just ten years before Bleak House). London’s Metropolitan Police had only been instituted in Britain 23 years before, in 1829, by then-Home Secretary Robert Peel. As with the American police, which emerged slightly later in the early 19th century out of armed peacekeeping groups seeking to quell slave uprisings and track runaway slaves, the rise of the British police is linked to white supremacy, not at home as much as in the empire; a British police force in India, known as the “Thug Police,” simultaneously arose in the 1820s and 30s under the command of William Sleeman, to exterminate Indian men suspected of being “thugs” (a group of brigands who allegedly murdered travelers, whose treachery, and existence in the first place, was likely manufactured to excuse a genocide of the Indian people at the hands of the colonialists). Thus, in a short time, there were lots of British police, and many kinds of British police. Many scholars have read Bleak House‘s detective, who is very affable, as existing to mediate some concerns about civil, domestic peacekeeping, as well as to address the public outrage regarding their roles as spies and their surveillance of everyday life, sending reports and waiting to catch ordinary people breaking the law. But the novel can’t seem to make its mind up about the virtues of this police officer, and seems to surprise even itself when it unveils that he is rotten underneath it all.
Until 1842, when the plainclothes detectives appeared, the point of the police force had seemed to be their visibility: preventing crime with their presences rather than embedding into crowds to wait for it to happen. The scholar D.A. Miller, in his foundational book The Novel and the Police, which looks at the rise of policing in the Victorian era concurrently with the rise of the novel form, explicitly calls Dickens a propagandist for the New Police. And he was; he wrote and published many essays in Household Words describing the newly prominent detectives’ attitudes, their occupational responsibilities, and their positive effects on the urban space, which he insisted included decreasing crime and, as Samet notes, making the maze of urban streets feel decipherable to the average Londoner. One of the many nonfiction pieces he wrote on the subject, an essay in Household Words called “Spy Police” begins with the statement: “We have already given some insight into the workings of the Detective Police system of London and have found that it is solely employed in bringing crime to justice”—a blanket endorsement of the force.
While Bucket may have been intended to help ease the anxieties about policing Victorian society, he also cannot help but embody several big contradictions that are germane to the policeman. For all Dickens’ support of the police, Bleak House is highly ambiguous and even confused about what good the undercover police officer really does enact. How can someone be truly trustworthy, the novel seems to ask, when their job is to catch those around them doing something wrong? And how can someone whose job it is to reinforce authority remain immune to the corruptions of the law, and the interests of the classes who make the laws?How can someone be truly trustworthy, the novel seems to ask, when their job is to catch those around them doing something wrong?
Suitable to the moral gray area he occupies, Bucket emerges in the novel in chiaroscuro. He steps out of the shadow of the conniving lawyer Tulkinghorn’s office, startling a clerk named Mr. Snagsby, who
is dismayed to see, standing with an attentive face between himself and the lawyer at a little distance from the table, a person with a hat and stick in his hand who was not there when he himself came in and has not since entered by the door or by either of the windows. There is a press in the room, but its hinges have not creaked, nor has a step been audible upon the floor. Yet this third person stands there with his attentive face, and his hat and stick in his hands, and his hands behind him, a composed and quiet listener. He is a stoutly built, steady-looking, sharp-eyed man in black, of about the middle-age. Except that he looks at Mr. Snagsby as if he were going to take his portrait, there is nothing remarkable about him at first sight but his ghostly manner of appearing.
Bucket, with his photographic gaze, materializes softly and smoothly from the darkness. Like Mr. Field, he seems vaguely otherworldly. “Ghostly,” he exists in a kind of liminality not totally perceivable to man’s senses. He is stealthy enough to be invisible in a dark room, and, as the narrator notes, ordinary-looking enough to melt into the background of a crowd. Bleak House is full of crowds (its very first paragraph is the description of a thick crowd, enshrouded by thick fog). As a detective, we will come to learn that Bucket trails folks all over London—in several chapters from now, the sole description of him in a single installment will be a casual mention that, at that exact moment in the narrative, Mr. Bucket is somewhere in London, going about his duty, catching criminals and frauds. He is everywhere and nowhere at once. Before he is first introduced, he might very well have been lurking in the novel’s many crowds.
Bucket’s appearance as the investigator of the mysterious dead body comes as a relief, especially given the tone of the sixth installment, August’s, which seems to be all about waiting—and this heightens the waiting actually done by the readers of the novel, who have been on the hook for three months. As with Dickens’ descriptions of the real-life Inspector Field, the reminders that he is “out there” pose exhilarating prospects. Dickens turns the threat of surveillance by the police into a potential springboard for adventure. But soon, Bucket is revealed to be not quite the force of order that everyone has been waiting for—and this is mostly because when he pops out of the shadows, it is to trick and arrest people.
Bucket arrives, fully disguised, at a shooting gallery where many characters have gathered. As the novel’s second narrator Esther Summerson explains, he looks to be “a very respectable old gentleman with grey hair, wearing spectacles, and dressed in a black spencer and gaiters and a broad-brimmed hat, and carrying a large gold-beaded cane.” This new visitor claims he is a physician. Esther continues, “…the physician stopped, and taking off his hat, appeared to vanish by magic and to leave another and quite a different man in his place.” The man in his place is, amazingly, Inspector Bucket, once again described in supernatural terms. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he crows to his spectators, as if he is a ringmaster, “you’ll excuse anything that may appear to be disagreeable in this, for my name’s Inspector Bucket of the Detective, and I have a duty to perform.” The duty is to arrest an elderly man named Mr. Gridley who dies right there, in the gallery, in police custody.In Bleak House, the law is represented as being ineffectual, inefficient, and broken when it does follow a set of rules, and completely menacing and threatening when taken up by those who use the rules to their own advantages.
The troublesome catch to Mr. Bucket is that he’s so likable—chatty and friendly. Later in the novel, there is even an adorable aside about how much he loves going home and solving cases with his wife, who is “a lady of a natural detective genius,” herself. While he’s arresting Gridley, he talks to him like they’re friends: “Lord bless your soul, what times we have had together! Haven’t I seen you in the Fleet over and over again for contempt? Haven’t I come into court, twenty afternoons for no other purpose than to see you pin the Chancellor like a bull-dog? Don’t you remember when you first began to threaten the lawyers, and the peace was sworn against you two or three times a week?” Mr. Gridley will be arrested because he has threatened the evil lawyer Tulkinghorn after becoming an involuntary party to the Jarndyce case. Bucket soothingly plays down the reasons for the arrest, saying that Gridley had simply let “his temper to get a little the better of him.”
But Bucket has probably gone to collect Gridley because Tulkinghorn has asked him to. Earlier in the novel, Bucket is introduced to the readers while physically inside the unscrupulous Tulkinghorn’s chambers; the police officer is presented as existing within the novel’s corrupt legal outfit. In Bleak House, the law is represented as being ineffectual, inefficient, and broken when it does follow a set of rules, and completely menacing and threatening when taken up by those who use the rules to their own advantages. Now, perhaps it seems that Tulkinghorn reporting Gridley’s threats to Bucket is the path of the law, but in one of the novel’s smaller twists, Bucket is later confirmed to mobilize at the behest of the lawyer, and this has very dangerous and unjust consequences.
In a later scene, Bucket drops in on the busy Bagnet family, whom he has never met, to call upon their visitor George Rouncewell. When he sees the Bagnets’ children, Quebec and Malta, he dissolves into a nonstop display of affection that charms the family. Letting the children climb him, he begs them for kisses, makes them laugh, plays with them, marvels at their likenesses to their parents, pinches their cheeks, makes jokes about his own funny-sounding last name, discusses how badly he wishes his wife could bear children, and then encourages the oldest son, Woolwich, to give an impromptu fife concert. After a splendid evening, in which the Bagnet parents feel as though they’ve gained a new friend, “the sparkling stranger” Mr. Bucket (who has made plans to call later in the week), Bucket and George leave together, arm-in-arm after the lovely evening. At which point, of course, Bucket arrests George on suspicion of murder:
Mr. George therefore soon proposes to walk singly. But Mr. Bucket, who cannot make up his mind to relinquish his friendly hold, replies, ‘Wait half a minute, George. I should wish to speak to you first.’ Immediately afterwards, he twists him into a public-house and into a parlour, where he confronts him and claps his own back against the door.
‘Now, George,’ says Mr. Bucket, ‘duty is duty, and friendship is friendship. I never want the two to clash if I can help it. I have endeavoured to make things pleasant to-night, and I put it to you whether I have done it or not. You must consider yourself in custody, George.’
This has all been a set-up, but even as he arrests George (who is innocent), Bucket insists that he means him no personal ill-will. Bucket’s biggest advantage is that he presents himself as being helpful. Even when he arrests them, he advises citizens that all will be well. Bucket inhabits the big contradiction of the police force, here; presenting as wanting to help, even while executing harm. But it’s crucial to his work that Bucket be seen as helpful. After all, what disguise does he choose when he’s tricking Gridley? A physician, someone whose job is fundamentally to help people.
However, Bucket commits the single worst act in the novel. Later in the novel, the sickly homeless boy Jo, who has just recovered from smallpox, goes missing from Bleak House. No one knows where he is, but Allan Woodcourt, a young physician with whom Esther will later fall in love (and who has never before met Jo), is wandering through Jo’s old impoverished neighborhood, the slum Tom-All-Alone’s, one night, and finds him there.
Through tears, Jo explains to Woodcourt that he was “took away” from Bleak House, “in the night.” Woodcourt asks Jo to tell him who did this, but Joe is too terrified to even say the man’s name out loud. Why? Because this man is “in all manner of places, all at wunst” and Jo is terrified he might be nearby to hear it. Eventually Woodcourt exhorts Jo to whisper the name into his ear. The readers are not privy to this information, but Jo does say out loud how the man removed him and banished him from that area of London. “[He] put me in a horsepittle,” says Jo, “till I was discharged, then giv me a little money—four half-bulls, wot you may call half-crowns—and ses ‘Hook it! Nobody wants you here,’ he ses. ‘You hook it. You go and tramp,’ he ses. ‘You move on,’ he ses. ‘Don’t let me ever see you nowheres within forty mile of London, or you’ll repent it.’ So I shall, if ever he doos see me, and he’ll see me if I’m above ground.”
This is all wildly cruel. Woodcourt is determined to locate this malefactor, and soon, heads to George Rouncewell’s shooting gallery, inquiring after a “Mr. Bucket,” not to report cruelty, but to accuse it. The readers soon learn that Tulkinghorn had previously discovered that Jo might have found out too much regarding a lucrative secret, and Tulkinghorn has privately requested that Mr. Bucket get rid of him. And Bucket, by all accounts, complies, scaring poor little Jo half to death. Because Jo has gone back to the slum, his sickness grows worse, and he dies—making Bucket responsible for two of the novel’s nine deaths, an old man and a little boy.
Given the novel’s many strata, the facts about this incident are hard to excavate. Bleak House is extremely layered formally, but it is also obsessed with the accretion of material: legal documents that make the Jarndyce case grind on for generations, cross-sections of the earth (the opening paragraph wonders if there is a fossilized dinosaur somewhere under the London streets), and even time itself. But the cold, hard truth about Mr. Bucket is buried far inside Bleak House, told across multiple chapters, and with evidence gathered by scattered, minor characters. Because the narratorial focus is not often given to low-class citizens, it’s hard to unearth that Bucket is bad, and, because he seems so well-intentioned to the characters who get narrative agency, even harder to admit. And the man who solves it reveals the kind of labor that does make someone a hero of the people: a doctor.
Bucket and Woodcourt could not be more different, but they operate in extremely similar ways. They both know everyone despite being secondary characters. Both Bucket and Woodcourt materialize after the first dead body has been found, and linger. Woodcourt is positioned in the story as the shadow of Inspector Bucket—a nearly invisible, unassuming foil, subtly plotted behind him for one specific purpose. In Bleak House, “detecting” is an everyman pastime, or even a community event. Lots of different characters investigate things, working on cases which Bucket eventually assumes. But with this inverted investigation of Woodcourt’s, Bleak House emphasizes that those solving crimes should be the last ones committing them.
Bucket is another subject of the novel’s preoccupation with helpless accumulation; we have so much information about him that he’s hard to label. When we follow him actually doing detective work, it’s exciting; he is a brilliant “outside the box” thinker, and he introduces the “puzzle-solving” dimension that so many subsequent mystery-solving police officers will possess. But the truth is that Bucket’s bad. He’s not just a bad apple since he is this novel’s symbol of the entire police force. And ultimately, he ruins people’s lives.
Bleak House, in all its considering systems of regulation and control, presents Dickens’ own struggles to understand what the police mean for society. It is a real-time (twenty-month-long) experiment in his coming to terms with an unpleasant reality. But when Bucket, who has already employed so much trickery, is discovered to be the agent who is cruelly responsible for the death of a sick child, the novel becomes clear about its stand. It ends up producing an emblematic police officer who does more harm than good, for all his jolliness and assurances of helpfulness. In Bleak House, Dickens determines (with disappointment) that the sign of the police officer is to gladly shake your hand, so he can slap the cuffs on your wrist.