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The Dick in Dickens : THE DETECTIVE AND MR. DICKENS: A Secret Victorian Journal Attributed to Wilkie Collins, Discovered and Edited. By William J. Palmer (St. Martin's Press: $17.95; 290 pp.)

January 20, 1991|Laura Kalpakian | Kalpakian's latest collection, "Dark Continent and Other Stories," is a recent Penguin paperback

What fun William J. Palmer must have had writing "The Detective and Mr. Dickens." A professor of English at Purdue, Palmer clearly has not succumbed to terminal deconstructionism but rather has used his fund of literary knowledge to write a delightful hot toddy of a winter's read. In this novel, Charles Dickens is a character, Dickens' characters are characters and Dickens' friend is the narrator.

For himself, Palmer assumes only the modest role of editor. He enters the fray with provocative footnotes, as befits a scholarly editor of a secret diary ascribed to Victorian writer Wilkie Collins. Collins is best known for the novels "Woman in White" and "The Moonstone," both written in the 1860s. In the period of this diary, the early 1850s, Collins was Dickens' protege (and about 12 years his junior), also serving as collaborator on Dickens' magazine Household Words.

Together with Inspector Fields of the Metropolitan Police, Collins participates in the unraveling of the "Macbeth Murders." In this quest (as in any good piece of Victoriana), villains abound, damsels are always in distress, thieves are clever and appealing and whores have hearts of gold. In Palmer's modern rendition, whores are allowed to have other parts of more dubious mettle.

One night in 1851, a drunken wealthy lawyer is found dead in the Thames after an under-the-bridge encounter with Irish Meg, the prostitute. Investigating the murder, Inspector Fields enlists the aid of the novelist Dickens because Dickens knows London as no one else.

By the 1850s, Dickens' acquaintances ranged from the queen herself (Victoria attended his amateur theatricals) to the nobility and the comfortable middle class, all the way down through the shabby genteel to the lowest dives, the prisons, the squalid haunts of the city's most wretched. So the detective clearly was wise to make use of the novelist. And later, the novelist was wise to make use of the detective, who appears as Inspector Bucket in "Bleak House" as well as under his own name in several of Dickens' lesser-known pieces.

Not surprisingly, the dead lawyer was carousing on that fateful night with rakish companions, some from the theater. Following the trail of suspects leads Dickens, Wilkie Collins and Inspector Fields to Covent Garden, where a production of "Macbeth" (traditionally bad luck for players) is under way.

Here, while searching for the unsavory stage manager, Collins witnesses Dickens' meeting with 15-year-old Ellen Ternan, the young actress who became his private companion after the very public breakup of his marriage in 1858. Miss Ternan's mother, an actress as well as a bawd, procured for her daughter a small role in "Macbeth" and sold her virginity--twice: to the now-dead lawyer and to the stage manager as well.

In an effort to rescue the damsel from the dastard, Dickens, Collins and the inspector dash to the shabby lodgings of the stage manager to find him dead and naked and the girl vanished. Their investigation leads them to the stately environs of Pall Mall and the wealthy apartments of Lord Henry Ashbee.

A smooth man of eclectic sexual tastes, Lord Henry keeps a vast library of pornography (the largest in England, a footnote tells us) for sexual reference, and a vast room for sexual practices. In the company of a most engaging thief named Tally Ho Thompson, Collins, Dickens and the inspector launch a daring plan to save Miss Ternan (drugged insensible, half-naked, chained to the wall and leered at by a gaggle of rich reprobates). Will they arrive in time to save the girl from Indignity?

In the decade of the 1850s, Dickens wrote some of his most memorable works. Characters from "Bleak House" and "Little Dorrit," "David Copperfield" and "Great Expectations" wink at the knowing reader from the pages of "The Detective and Mr. Dickens." Indeed, the Dickens buff will be pleased to find a whole deck of lesser characters here as well.

Palmer's book, in short, takes place in that marshy bog where literature and history meet, and he has mapped his way here creditably. Even the footnotes are engaging, posing all sorts of interesting questions. How much more appealing to find them here rather than in the hoary tracts that English professors usually resort to.

Perhaps the only disappointment here is that Dickens himself is wanting as a character. Palmer has not vividly portrayed the man's blustering exuberance, unbridled energy or consummate disregard for others' needs or wishes. However, Palmer seems to me to be less interested in Dickens the author and more concerned with Dickens' milieu. Palmer considers questions of hypocrisy and makes an issue of the constraints that shackled women, just as surely as Ellen Ternan is here shackled to Lord Ashbee's wall.

In this secret diary (written, we are told, for the future), "Wilkie Collins" can be candid as he could not in the 19th Century. He can nakedly record episodes of harlotry and prostitution. Pornography cannot exist without powerlessness.

Nonetheless, for all the grisly detail in these pages, this London is less horrifying, less lurid than the London of, say, "Bleak House," where fog, murk and the filth of the streets serve not as backdrop but as barometer to the humanity they both obscure and devour.

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