Wednesday, April 15, 2015

‘Umpty Dumpty was a hegg - Trollope fails to invent the detective novel

The great Victorian novelists all missed a great opportunity.  I cannot see how they did not see it.

The Eustace Diamonds is plotted around a terrifically expensive diamond necklace – who is the proper owner, who is the actual owner, how to move it from place to place, that sort of thing.  It is not a McGuffin in that plenty of meaning is attached to it, and to the iron box in which Lizzie Eustace keeps it, by the characters.

The police become involved, and for two chapters out of eighty The Eustace Diamonds recognizably becomes a detective novel.  The detectives are Officers Bunfit and Gager of Scotland Yard.  Bunfit has interrogated a suspect, Billy:

“And what did he say to that, Mr. Bunfit?”

“Well he said a good deal.  He's a sharp little fellow, is Billy, as has read a good deal.  You've heard of ‘Umpty Dumpty, Gager?  ‘Umpty Dumpty was a hegg.”

“All right.”

“As had a fall, and was smashed – and there's a little poem about him.”

“I know.”

“Well: – Billy says to me: ‘Mr. Camperdown don't want no hinformation; he wants the diamonds.  Them diamonds is like ‘Umpty Dumpty, Mr. Bunfit.  All the king's horses and all the king's men couldn't put ‘Umpty Dumpty up again.’“

“Billy was about right there,” said the younger officer, rising from his seat.  (Ch. 57)

If more detective novels were written like this, I would read more detective novels.  Trollope here approaches the sublimity of Blind Man with a Pistol (1969) by Chester Himes, of the conversations between Coffin Ed Johnson and Gravedigger Jones.  In the second chapter of the mystery, Officer Gager makes perhaps the boldest move I have ever seen a police detective make.  How I wish I could read a novel starring Gager and Bunfit.  Perhaps someone has written such a thing.  Those are the kinds of books people write now.

Dickens has the Inspector Bucket chapters in Bleak House (1852-3), Collins practically invents the detective novel with The Moonstone (1868) and Sergeant Cuff, and here Trollope takes the trouble to invest Gager and Bunfit with some personality, and none of these popular commercial writers ever think to use their characters again, even with the example of Poe’s Dupin stories.  Collins is the real puzzler, but it is clear enough that Trollope had a great deal of fun in these two chapters.  But I know why he didn’t he do it again.

Trollope hates secrets.  The only thing he keeps from his readers is the future, as if his imagination does not allow time to pass until it has been written down.  Several chapters earlier he had already explained the mystery.  “The chronicler states this at once, as he scorns to keep from his reader any secret that is known to himself.”  So ends Chapter 52, which features events that cheaper writers would extend for suspense.

It is hoped that the reader, to whom every tittle of this story has been told without reserve, will remember that others were not treated with so much open candour.  (Ch. 56)

This is one of the oddest sentences I have ever seen in a novel.  After 500 pages, Trollope feels he needs to remind readers of the rules of his fiction, to remind them that the characters do not know everything the readers know.  I almost feel insulted.  But Trollope has become anxious that he has introduced too much suspense into his novel, that the readers have become too interested in the mechanics of the crime, that perhaps they are even doubting the omniscience of the narrator despite – or because of  - his protests.  The Eustace Diamonds was serialized in monthly four-chapter chunks, so it is possible that Trollope had picked this idea up from actual readers.  Or maybe it was all in his imagination.

So Trollope was not going to invent the ongoing series of detective novels, is what I am saying, even if he came close.


  1. Ah, this is a great observation, Tom. I wonder if the business of trying to write great, realistic fiction didn't get in front of inventing new genres. Hack writers with less lofty goals just had to come up with fresh stuff to enthrall readers.

  2. That's why Wilkie Collins is the puzzle. He did invent the detective novel. He was not all that interested in realism. He was kind of a hack, and for personal reasons became more of a hack over time. But he still had the kind of imagination that kept looking for something new. So he did not see how he had created such a useful, flexible formula.

    When Trollope if formulaic, it is more of a failure of imagination than a deliberate choice.