Tuesday, 20 December 2011
Action! Mystery! Terror!.....by Miriam Halahmy
Charles Dickens was the first major novelist to make a detective a key character in a novel. In the 1840s he began a long and close friendship with Detective Inspector Charles Field. Together they walked around London at night - one of Dickens' favourite pastimes - through the main areas of vice and crime. In Bleak House Dickens gives us a murder, three main suspects and Inspector Bucket - a shrewd, amiable, thoughtful detective.
Is this where the public's thirst for thrillers and detective stories first began?
But the truly terrible murder - the murder which to my mind is one of the most terrible in fiction - came twenty years earlier than Bleak House.
The murder of Nancy by Bill Sykes in Oliver Twist.
Enraged that Nancy has betrayed him Bill goes round to her room with murder on his mind. He has a pistol but knows that if he fires he will give himself away. So in a complete fury he beats her with the barrel until blood pours from her head. But this doesn't kill her and she pulls out a white handkerchief begging for mercy. Sykes is beyond any thoughts of mercy.
"It was a ghastly figure to look upon. The murderer, staggering backwards to the wall, and shutting out the sight with his hand, seized a heavy club and struck her down."
To me, the horror of this scene lies in Sykes' own horror at what he is doing - he is incapable of looking at his own handiwork and has to cover his eyes as he deals the final blow.
Above is the text that Dickens; used for his readings of Oliver - annotated with his own hand. He heavily underlines words to show emphasis and actually writes instructions to himself.
Action - does he actually cover his own eyes here as the final blow is dealt?
Mystery - I would imagine a change of tone, perhaps speaking more softly and more mysteriously here as he reads the passage about the sun's rays penetrating the room.
Terror to the end - as he comments on 'the ghastly sight' in the sunlit room
Dickens' readings of the killing of Nancy made grown men faint and took so much out of him that this probably contributed to his premature death at the age of 58.
Dickens took his readers to the edge week after week in the serialisation of his wonderful books. He was the master of the cliff hanger.
Sykes murder of Nancy is one of the enduring terrifying images of my childhood, heightened by the image in the black and white film of Sykes' terrorised dog scrabbling to be let out of the murdered woman's room.
Doesn't get much more edgy than that!