A vast novel of urban poverty and rural splendour; a scathing portrait of the law as practised in London at the time it was written; a fable of innocence in the face of corruption and evil: Bleak House is many things, but it is also perhaps the first detective novel in English. Inspector Bucket of the Detective Police is an unassuming man in middle age who believes that ‘every person should have their rights according to justice’. Engaged in the investigation of two mysteries (finding the real identity of an orphan and solving a murder), Bucket comes to realise that the two cases are linked. He patiently explains his reasoning towards the end of the book: certainly the first time this classic revelation scene had been used in English literature.
Inspector Bucket appears to have been based on Charles Frederick Field (1805-1874), who was Detective Chief Inspector at Scotland Yard at the time the novel was written. Dickens knew Field well and wrote an admiring portrait (‘On Duty With Inspector Field’) in 1851, just as he was making notes for what would become Bleak House. Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone (1868) is generally considered the first English novel whose central character is a detective.
The novel was originally published in 19 instalments in Dickens’ own journal, Household Words. Following the general practice of the day, each instalment contained three or four chapters and was designed to end on a note of suspense. The final instalment was usually a ‘double number’ (that is to say six to eight chapters) in order to tie up the whole story.