Charles Dickens is England’s best-known author after William Shakespeare. In fact, during the peak of his career in the mid-19th century, he was more famous (and far richer) than Shakespeare had ever become in his lifetime.
In some ways, Dickens was just as colorful as the characters in his novels. When he was 12, his father was sent to debtors’ prison. The boy was forced to leave school. He went to work in a factory pasting labels on pots of boot blacking. Even when his father was released from prison, his mother forced him to keep working there. He later spent only two more years in school. Dickens complained about “the haphazard, desultory teaching, poor discipline punctuated by the headmaster’s sadistic brutality, the seedy ushers and general run-down atmosphere.” Anyone who’s read the man’s novels will recognize the scene.
A mystery starring Charles Dickens
By the time he was 21, he had begun to write stories for the popular press based in part on his own life experiences. Given his commitment to social reform, his ability to mix with people of all social classes, and his acute powers of observation, it’s not too much of a stretch to think that young Dickens might have become involved in a murder investigation. After all, violence was ever-present in Victorian London. In any case, that’s the conceit of Heather Raymond’s charming novel A Tale of Two Murders.
A Tale of Two Murders (A Dickens of a Crime) by Heather Redmond (2018) 320 pages @@@@ (4 out of 5)
Dickens is smitten by his boss’ daughter
Charles Dickens is 22. He’s employed as a reporter for the Evening Chronicle and writes “sketches” for other papers to earn money on the side. He lives in a modest apartment with his 14-year-old brother, Fred. One evening, as Dickens is enjoying a home-cooked dinner with his boss, George Hogarth, the editor’s 19-year-old daughter, Kate, catches his eye. Dickens is smitten. And when they hear a scream coming from a neighboring house, Charles is thrilled to accompany Kate to investigate. In the neighbors’ home, they discover a woman of about Kate’s age lying, deathly ill. They spend the night helping her mother nurse the young woman. As morning approaches, however, she dies.
A mystery starring Charles Dickens
Clearly, the woman was a victim of poisoning. But who would kill her, and why? The mystery draws Charles and Kate into a complex and perilous investigation that exposes the young journalist to the extremes of London society. He finds himself moving back and from the drawing rooms of the aristocracy to the fetid streets of the city. Naturally, since this is fiction, we know that Charles and Kate will solve the murder and all will come out well in the end. But it’s a lot of fun to watch the budding author in action along the way. And the colorful picture of London society in the mid-19th century is rewarding as well.
Actually, Charles Dickens rode along with London’s first detectives
It turns out that Dickens was, in fact, deeply fascinated by detective work. An insomniac, he rode along with the newly-minted detectives as they roamed the city in search of solutions to crime. And an article that crops up in Crimereads, “Charles Dickens was obsessed with detectives, too,” tells the fascinating story. In his novel, Bleak House, the character of Inspector Bucket was apparently based on one of the city’s first detectives, Charles Frederick Field. (Dickens denied it, but his denial isn’t credible.) So, Redmond’s conceit isn’t all that far-fetched.
About the author
Heather Redmond is a long-time author under another name. First published in mystery, she took a long detour through romance before returning. Though her last known British ancestor departed London in the 1920s, she is a committed anglophile, Dickens devotee, and lover of all things nineteenth century.
For additional reading
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