One dank November night, Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins are called to a part of London notorious for its opium denswhere an Oxford History Don has been found murdered. Eager to escape the drudgery of a London winter, the two amateur detectives willingly accept Inspector Field's orders to travel on the new railway line to Oxford, where Collins was once a student, to conduct an undercover investigation. Once in Oxford, they enlist the help of Collins's old schoolmate, Charles Dodgson, a brilliant mind on the verge of becoming the youngest don in Oxford's history. Together, they encounter a complex conspiracy punctuated by murder, political radicalism, and revenge.
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A Murder in Limehouse Hole
November 25, 1853 — Evening
It had been a regular Bleak House day all day in London. Implacable November weather, indeed! Dickens had described it "inimitably" only eighteen months earlier in the opening of his great novel of the city. I remember all of that day vividly, not just the shocking events of the evening. As I look out my window here in 1871, I can almost see back to 1853 and the day on which the Oxford affair began.
The entire city of London was smothered in a heavy blanket of fog. Just stepping outside one's doorway was dangerous. It was a dirty and diseased metropolis. It seemed that London could not stop growing in those days, that the people would not stop coming, that the houses would not stop falling down, that the poor and the sick would not stop begging and dying in the streets, that the dust would not stop accumulating in the doorways and alleys, that the smoke would not stop blackening the buildings, that the criminals would not stop preying upon the innocent and unsuspecting, that the rush of Victorian commerce would stop for no one and threatened to carry us all away.
London that long-ago November was indeed an oppressive place, but this particular affair of detection in which Dickens and I once again would go "on duty with Inspector Field"* would be the first "case" which actually forced Field to expand his sphere of detective influence outside the city.
That particular implacable November day, Dickens and I had barricaded ourselves in the Household Words offices on Wellington Street. For once in his life, Dickens seemed to be on top of the game. He actually seemed happy, not his customary restless self. Catherine and the children had chosen to remain at Broadstairs until mid- December in hopes that the sea air would be more beneficial to her faltering health than the pestilential mists of London. The new passenger trains that seemed to be going so many places did not yet travel to Broadstairs. So, pleading the hardship of winter travel, Dickens went to the family only every other week's end. But the real reason for his happiness was that his distance from his domestic hearth gave him more time to spend with his beloved Ellen, more time to lavish upon that May- December relationship, which those who knew him (besides myself and Irish Meg, who already knew for certain) such as Angela Burdett-Coutts, Wills, Thackeray, Forster, Macready, were beginning to suspect had gone beyond the benevolent interest of an older patron or guardian for his young ward.
On that particular implacable November day of which I write, Ellen Ternan had just closed in Macready's The Taming of the Shrew, in which she had played three small parts. But she was an established member of the company and was just waiting for the getting up of the next offering, which was rumoured to be a Sheridan comedy.
That is not to say that Charles's instinctive restlessness was completely subdued. He still took his frequent night walks, only he did not as often ask me to accompany him, and, I only speculate, his evening walks frequently had a precise destination (the backstage door at Covent Garden), and he did not always return home, to the Household Words offices that is, until the following morning. Indeed, one morning I actually arrived at the offices a bit early, at eight instead of my usual time, and met Dickens at the doorstep, just coming in. He made some hurried excuse that he had just gone out for some air, but the state of his clothes when he removed his greatcoat indoors gave a different evidence. (Who knows? Maybe I was somewhat of a detective after all.)
As for me, I was bored, even somewhat confused. Irish Meg had been at work in her clerk's job at Coutts Bank for almost eleven months and each day seemed a new carnival for her in the bustling theatre of commerce. What bothered me, I suppose, is that she seemed so pleased with herself in her new life and so little concerned with me and the life we had shared together for so long.
On that day in question, however, Dickens and I had truly battened down the hatches at the Household Words office when Inspector Field, his pull-toy Serjeant Rogers, and our latest case came a-knocking. It was probably about five in the afternoon because dusk was already taking the city into custody when I descended the stairs from Dickens's second-storey office-cum-living quarters to open the door upon Field and Rogers.
"Wilkie, is 'ee 'ere?" Field demanded. "I think the two of you can be of 'elp to us on this 'un," he explained as I ushered them in and up the stairs.
"Field, what is it?" Dickens met us at the top.
All of our editorial work was forgotten, the dinner which we had not yet ordered was forgotten, the brutality of the weather was forgotten, perhaps even his Ellen was momentarily forgotten, because from the excited look on Charles's face as he extended his welcoming hand to Field, it was clear that he sensed we were about to embark on another case of detection.
"We 'ave a murder in Lime'ouse 'Ole," Field went straight to the point.
Rogers and I exchanged glances: his, as usual, tight-lipped and grim; mine, as usual, fraught with alarm.
"Chinaman?" Dickens shot right back at him.
"No, and that is why I've come for your 'elp, the two of you," and he nodded in my direction as a way of including me whether I desired to be included or not.
"If it is not a Chinaman dead in Limehouse Hole," Dickens pursued his line of inquiry, "then who is it?"
"A white man, not a yellow man," Serjeant Rogers solemnly pronounced.
"A rather well-dressed, full-bearded, bespectacled man, without a single paper of identification upon 'im," Field gave a full description. "I'd 'oped that you two might come and take a look at 'im. Per'aps you can see something that Rogers and I can't see."
"Yes, of course." Dickens was absolutely gleeful. "Wilkie, our coats."
But Field stopped him in mid-rush as he was scrambling for his waistcoat.
"We'll go in the Protectives' coach, Charles. I've got two constables guarding the corpse," and his voice took on a tone of warning, "but you've got to be careful down there. It is Chinatown, you know, and you never quite know what is going on. Stay in our shadows. If anything out of the common 'appens, let Rogers and me 'andle it."
"Fine. We understand perfectly, don't we, Wilkie?" And he nodded his head with an eager anticipation that I did not at all share.
"A gentleman murdered in Limehouse Hole," Dickens mused aloud as he climbed into the police coach whose horses stood like smoke- breathing dragons tethered to a gas lamp at the curbstone. "Rather unusual that, eh?"
"Oh yes, quite," Field answered as he too climbed in. "Gentlemen only go to Lime'ouse for one thing, and the Chinee usually see to it that they stay safe so they can come back."
"The smoke?" Dickens asked.
"That's it," Field replied.
And with that, Rogers shut us into the coach, climbed up on the box, clicked his whip out over the pair's ears, and we were off.CHAPTER 2
The Telltale Cravat
November 25, 1853 — Evening
Field's police coach carried us rapidly out of the West End. We struck out of Wellington Street and crossed the Strand, rolled along Fleet Street past the Royal Courts of Justice and down Ludgate Hill towards St. Paul's, but at the bottom of the hill Rogers swerved the horses sharply towards the river and we pulled up beneath the stone hulk of Blackfriars Bridge.
As we rode through the fog-choked city, Dickens pressed Field for more information about the murder.
"How was this gentleman killed?" Dickens began.
"Shot with a revolver, from in front, close in, we think. The bullet seems to 'ave gone clear through 'im."
"That is odd. Would a Chinaman use a pistol? Do Chinamen even own pistols?"
"You're absolutely right." Field grinned at Dickens's solemn deductive concentration. "The Chinee tend more toward sharp knives and throats slit from behind."
"Do you think it was a robbery?" Dickens plunged ahead with his detectiving, undeterred by Field's amusement. "You said there was not a piece of identification upon the corpse."
"Nothing. Not a purse, nor even a stray card or scrap of foolscap."
"Were there signs of a scuffle, of violence before the shot was fired?" To my great surprise, that was my voice asking.
"None at all," Field answered. "That is what is so strange. It is as if someone just walked up and shot 'im, then cleaned out 'is pockets after. Most of London's strong-armers don't operate that way at all."
"It might well have been someone he knew." Dickens was not really addressing either Field or me, but rather just musing aloud. "Shot at close range from in front."
"Per'aps," Field affirmed Dickens's reasoning, "but in this beastly fog someone could be upon you before you even saw them."
It was on that pronouncement that our coach pulled up on the river embankment.
We disembarked at the head of a wide river stair, at the bottom of which waited a Thames River Police longboat with four burly constables at the oars. It obviously had been placed at Inspector Field's disposal by one of his counterparts on the River Police.
The fog hung over the river like a shroud as we pushed off from those wide stone stairs. As we picked up speed downriver under the rhythmic beating of the oars, the skeleton of the new iron railway bridge protruded out of the fog as if its limbs were hung on the city's enormous gibbet.
We landed at a tumbledown dock somewhere and quickly went ashore like buccaneers.
In three steps out of the boat we were swallowed up by the fog. Nonetheless, Field and Rogers were able to lead us through a succession of narrow streets between cobbled-together shacks and crumbling tenements directly to the corpse. It lay on its back in the middle of a dark alleyway with a blood-encrusted hole right through its heart. It looked as if it might simply be sleeping, but on closer inspection it was, indeed, quite dead. Every time I saw a corpse (and since becoming associated with Field we had seen quite a few), I could not help but think how its stillness, its coldness, attested to the terrible fragility of our lives.
Two of Field's constables presided over the body, and though the thick fog effectually veiled us from sight, one had a sense that eyes were upon us, watching, suspicious of these buccaneers from the river who had invaded their domain. But though the night was dark, in his sharp brown hat that shadowed his sharp detective's eyes, Field's gaze cut through that fog the way those new railways slice through the English countryside.
"There's our body, gentlemen." Field pointed straight ahead with his exceedingly sharp forefinger as we approached.
Field went to his knee beside the corpse, and Dickens immediately followed suit right on Field's shoulder as if he were some kind of perching tropical bird. Having little choice in the matter, I circled round and, much to my distaste, went to my own knee on the other side of the corpse opposite Dickens and Field. Serjeant Rogers was momentarily off talking to the constables who had been standing guard, so the three of us were alone with the unfortunate dead man.
We all stared down at the body. It seemed an ordinary enough corpse. The man was generously bearded, bespectacled, and very white in death. Once one sees that sickly white pallor for the first time, one never needs any other test to prove that a fellow human being has departed this life. This dead man was dressed in a staid, rather well-tailored dark blue suit and vest, a grey soft cambric shirt with a detachable white button collar, and a rather bright blue cravat. He was, indeed, a rather dapper corpse, as if he had gotten himself up in his best clothes to come out on this bitter night and be murdered.
"Why, he's an Oxford man!" I heard my own voice speaking out. "Christ Church. Not my college, but I'd know it anywhere."
Both Field and Dickens gaped at me in surprise at this confident revelation. But Inspector Field quickly collected himself. He seemed about to interrogate me when a curious thing happened.
A young, rather portly man materialized out of the fog and stood over us as we knelt by the corpse. This man was escorted by the ever efficient Serjeant Rogers.
"Sorry, sir, but 'ee insisted, sir," Rogers rushed his excuses in before this newcomer could explain himself and his interruption of our deliberation over the corpse. "'Ee said 'ee was 'Ome Office, 'ee did."
"'Ome Office?" Field looked up questioningly at this stout apparition in his quite official-looking dark suit, high beaver hat, and pointed umbrella.
"Yes. Holmes, Mycroft Holmes," the young man introduced himself, and extended his hand to Inspector Field, who in the meanwhile had risen to his feet to confront this intruder, "and I am, indeed, a member of the Home Office."
"Field," and he gave the young man's hand a shake. "William Field, Bow Street Station, Protectives," he identified himself and, ever utterly direct, posed the question that stood at attention in all of our minds: "What brings ye 'ere on this bitter night?"
This Holmes was indeed a rather young man, no more than twenty- three or -four, I think. He was a rotund, rosy personage, built upon the model of Humpty Dumpty, but he was very composed for such an ingenue and did not in the least flinch at Field's directness.
"One of my men was apprised of this unfortunate affair this afternoon by the River Police, much, I presume, in the same manner that you, Inspector Field, were called in," Mr. Holmes politely explained. "Since the Home Office presently has an interest in this Oriental section of our city, this rather untypical murder of a white man down here caught my attention."
"It did?" Field answered rather dully. I observed that the formidable Inspector, for one of the few times in my experience of him, seemed at sea and did not quite know how to proceed.
"Yes." Young Holmes, sensing Field's rising suspicions, immediately set out to reassure the policeman. "But I do not mean to intrude in any way upon your investigation of this terrible murder. I simply wish to observe, to share in any insight you might have into the affair."
"Might I ask why?" Dickens stepped in since Field still did not seem to have his wits about him in the face of this rather superior yet surpassingly polite young representative of the British Empire.
"And you are, sir?" Holmes turned equally politely to Dickens.
Dickens, in turn, was a bit taken aback at not being immediately recognized: "Why, Charles Dickens."
Now it was young Mr. Mycroft Holmes's turn to be surprised and unprepared, even slightly embarrassed.
"Charles Dickens, why, yes, of course. I certainly should have recognized you, sir, but I did not expect, you see, I mean, here, in Limehouse Hole ..." young Holmes hemmed and hawed. "My great pleasure, Mr. Dickens, to make your acquaintance sir," our startled young public servant stammered to his end.
This whole exchange put a completely new complexion upon this rather unlikely meeting of three such separate minds in the fog. It certainly clarified for me why Field so carefully nurtured Dickens's friendship. Having someone as famous as Dickens at his side gave Inspector Field a credibility and power over anyone who might momentarily feel that he held the upper hand.
Young Holmes pumped Dickens's hand ardently, meanwhile mumbling all manner of compliments of the "I have read all of your books" sort. Dickens's presence seemed to have overthrown this young literary-minded government official's officious mastery of the situation. Dickens and Field exchanged a quick but significant look. Field gave Dickens a quick nod, which I interpreted as permission to proceed.
"I asked why you, and the Home Office, are so interested in this affair?" Dickens's question tugged young Mr. Holmes back to his official reserve, which had momentarily melted in the heat of his admiration for Dickens's art.
"I am sorry, gentlemen," young Holmes regained his formality by tugging down on the tips of his vest beneath his waistcoat and thus stiffening his whole posture, "but I am not yet at liberty to say what the Home Office's interest in Limehouse Hole is. All I can say is that it might, possibly, sometime in the future, involve matters of national security."
"So," and Field now had regained his power it seemed, "you wants to sit in on this murder case, and you wants me to tell you all I come to know about it, but you won't even tell me why?"(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Dons and Mr. Dickens"
Copyright © 2000 William J. Palmer.
Excerpted by permission of Diversion Publishing Corp..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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In 1853 London, Metropolitan Protective Inspector William Field asks Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins to identify the corpse of a white man found in a nearby opium den. The tie that the victim wears tells Wilkie that the dead man is a member of Oxford. Another associate of the two writers, Charles Dodgson recognizes the deceased as a history don at Oxford. At the urging of Inspector Field, the three associates decide to investigate the murder of the don. Although they have worked previous cases, Dickens, Wilkie, and Dodgson remain writers/wannabe authors playing amateur sleuths. Their actions soon place their very lives and that of Dickens' mistress in danger from an unknown assailant. The fourth Dickens-Collins Victorian mystery is a clever who-done-it, populated by literary references and their associated footnotes. The story line is fun although the use of Victorian era dialect makes one wonder if Dickens is heading in the direction of Chaucer and Shakespeare, difficult to read without a translator. The plot belongs to the trio of writers as the audience sees a glimpse of them beyond the classroom and outside their novels. Harriet Klausner