Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Books That Grab Me: Charles Dickens' Bleak House

This must, of course, be a partial entry on Bleak House as a full entry might be as long and twisting as the novel itself.  It is the original "large, loose, baggy monster," to borrow from Virginia Woolf, filled with so many subplots and distractions that folks can argue long and hard about what is the true center of the book.  If it has one at all.

The reason I treat it on a site devoted to crime fiction is that, to my knowledge, Bleak House is the first novel to include a professional detective among its cast of characters, Inspector Bucket, who does eventually get his man...err, woman for the murder of a vile solicitor called Tulkinghorn. (Dickens' felicity with names is one of the strongest recommendations to read his work.  He had no fear appending ridiculous names to his creations, more bravery than any authors working today.)

Aside from its elements as the first police procedural novel, what Dickens wrote is a meditation on the processes and mechanisms of justice.  It spends inordinate amounts of time mucking around in the inheritance courts, called the Courts of Chancery, how can one hear that and not have punny ideas spring to life?  Who wins and loses in a drawn out battle of wills?  Who finds a new draft of an old will?  Who can dig back into history, sweep away the dry dust, and figure out the questions that really matter?  For those that don't already know, Dickens allows little faith in the process to dribble into the more satiric aspects of the novel.  It's rarely good news with him.

Read Bleak House not just because of its longevity, but also because it's a good mystery novel period.  Yes, it embraces some of the worst of the Victorian literary flourishes.  Yes, the book opens with many well-written pages of fog and mud, themes that become important as one walks into foggy courtrooms and begins digging into the muddy past.  Yes, the language is hard, opaque, long in paragraph, but beautiful.  It's worth the effort to engage and make what you can from Bleak House.

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