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Charles Dickens: Detective Stories and the Robocop Connection

If you read our recent blog on luminous watches and the Radium Girls, you’ll know that one of the awesome things we get to do behind to scenes is to look at some of the million items we have in the collection that the public either don’t normally get to see or are about to go out on display after some research.

Now the last big office scrutiny and discussion was a pile of old Police Gazette and Parade Gossip newspapers – rare survivors as most must have been destined to light the following week’s fires at the station, or binned with the vegetable peelings. We have a pile of them in remarkable condition for newsprint paper that’s over one hundred years old.

Being produced in the days before ever-present photography, many of the illustrations were line drawings. The evocative images got us musing about the illustrated stories in late Victorian magazines like 'The Strand' and inevitably (for a collection of police items at least) its most famous creation, Sherlock Holmes. In fact so ingrained is Conan Doyle into the consciousness that it doesn’t take much to ‘Holmesify’ any situation, including working in our office:

… It was a glorious afternoon in late September when I recall leaning over the desk to examine the pile of newsprint, scanning the titles idly. My friend and colleague Miss Roberts inquired of me, without looking up from her curating task in the corner, “Is there something you’re looking for in particular?” I stared at her, for she hadn’t moved a muscle – how could that fantastic analytical brain have deduced I was scrutinising the papers without turning around ? “Before you proclaim my genius and beg to be told how it’s done, after which you’ll doubtlessly call it a trifling affair; I’ll just point out the highly polished fireman’s helmet that your reflection is cast in, Watson.” I blushed and tried to change the subject …

Ahem, I rest my case. Holmes and Watson have been pastiched for so long now that it’s almost impossible to get past their legacy in the annals of detective fiction but that’s where the discussion meandered. From Sidney Paget’s famous illustrations we began to wonder who the first author was to popularise crime fiction.

Undoubtedly that honour has to go to the American Edgar Allan Poe, whose Auguste Dupin stories ‘The Murder in the Rue Morgue’ (1841), ‘The Purloined Letter’ (1842) and 'The Mystery of Mary Roget’ (1844) paved the way for all of the others in mainstream fiction; the gentleman detective who solves crimes when everyone else is baffled. However his antecedents couldn’t be more bizarre; Dupin was directly based on Eugène François Vidocq, a real life criminal who changed sides and became the first director of the detective Sûreté! Sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction.

The first English detective story is said to be Wilkie Collins’ 'Woman in White' in 1859, written 15 years after Poe’s last tale; many people give him the title of the 'Grandfather of English Detective Fiction', citing his storylines and criminal knowledge from his time in the legal profession. But they overlook another solicitor's clerk who did much to champion the cause of law and order: Charles Dickens. Yes, that one … Oliver Twist, Pickwick Papers, Bleak House and, of course, A Christmas Carol.

So here we are, finally getting to the point. Dickens had a fascination for both the fledgling police force and the soon to emerge detective branch. Building from the foundations of Henry Fielding’s (yes, another author) Bow Street Runners, the Metropolitan Police Force was formed in 1829.

Bored solicitor’s clerk, Charles Dickens, thrilled to the newspaper reports of crimes and the process of solving of them by the force and attended many of the more sensational trails of the day in his official capacity. As his interest grew he featured police and undercover detectives galore in his writings. His first, the 1836 ‘The Drunkard’s Death’, tells a tale of two undercover policemen looking through the grim and crime ridden slums of Whitechapel for the murderous son of the titular drunkard. One of their rather unorthodox actions is to ply the father with drink in order to find out the hiding place of the son – more akin to The Professionals than Dixon of Dock Green. Dickens' record of fictional crime writing ended with his death in 1870 with one of the most intriguing unfinished crime novels of all time – the Mystery of Edwin Drood, which still generates arguments about who the murderer actually was! In between there were a procession of official and non-official legal agents in his stories.

Mr Nadgett became Dickens' first serious detective – actually a private enquiry agent for an insurance company. He appeared in 1844, in the latter half of Martin Chuzzlewit, lurking in the background. A secretive, shabby and unassuming man, he gathered the evidence that when revealed piece by piece (like Hercule Poirot after him) ultimately proved the wrong doings of Josiah Chuzzlewit; who had hastened his old father’s death to gain his money, property and business.

In real life Dickens began to go out with real police officers on patrol at night and experience the highs and lows of their profession; he followed the workings of the new detective branch (from 1842 onwards) and included his direct observations – including a public hanging in Bleak House - of the justice system as it stood. Whilst many of the populace, from politicians to peasants, still felt the ‘Peelers’ had no place in English society Dickens was constantly championing their work in print and publicising the difficulties the constabulary found themselves in.

During 1850, based on his experiences, his magazine 'Household Words' featured three separate non-fiction articles about the workings of the police force; 'The Modern Science of Thief Taking’ led in turn to ‘A Night in a Station House' and the wonderfully titled 'The Metropolitan Protectives'.

It is, however, to one of Dickens’ less well known comedic stories, written a mere decade after the formation of the Metropolitan Police, that we have to go for the Robocop connection. The Met suffered widespread disrespect from not only the criminal classes but also the upper classes (who had pretty much done what they’d wanted in society for as long as anyone could remember). Many officers were verbally and physically assaulted, sometimes for sport. Successful prosecutions were rare, with the miscreants often being released by a deferential judiciary the following morning.

Although written in a jokey way, Dickens created the plan for policing that would protect wider society, allow the 'Hooray Henrys' their drunken sport and - if followed to the letter - would earn an income. In ‘The Automaton Police’, he suggested a totally recreated town (a mere 10 miles by three), with realistic buildings, populated by a variety of life sized clockwork driven people that could be ‘set upon like any real man by six or eight noblemen or gentlemen’ and ‘after it was down, the figure would utter divers groans, mingled with entreaties for mercy, thus rendering the illusion complete and the enjoyment perfect'. Courthouses would be built ‘where a pantomimic investigation would take place before the automaton magistrates – quite equal to life – who would fine them in so many counters provided for the purpose'. The prisoners would be ‘at perfect liberty as they are now to interrupt complainants as much as they please and to make any remarks they thought proper'. Charging for this sport would allow the whole set up to be self-sustaining, satiate their bloodlust and save the wider society from injury and inconvenience.

I’m sure some of you will scream ‘foul’ at this revelation, fully expecting a Dickensian tale of robotic slaughter on the streets. (Oliver Twist might have turned out differently with the inclusion of an Auto 9C revolver assault pistol; it certainly wouldn’t have taken so long - 'Fagin – dead or alive you’re coming with me'.) But think of this in its wider sense; Dickens posits the core idea of robot policemen laying down their lives to keep society safe - sound familiar?

So next time you watch one of those TV policemen with their interesting foibles - the French one, the Dutch one, the opera loving one, the drug taking one, the real ale drinking one, the one with anger management issue or the ones who live in the fictional home counties where death toll is so unbelievably high on a weekly basis they’d have surely been replaced by now - please don’t forget their dark origins; the 183 year old clockwork ones.

Evening all – mind how you go.

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