When people talk about early detective novels, and Dickens's influence on the genre, they usually tend to bring up Inspector Bucket of Bleak House. The Inspector has been called "the first important detective in English literature," and there's little doubt he merits the description.
But there's at least one other detective figure in Dickens's work who seems to be almost completely overlooked: Sissy Jupe in Hard Times.
I realize, of course, that Sissy is not a professional detective. But the detective canon is full of amateur sleuths, and I would argue that the humble "stroller's child" deserves to be listed among them.
(I'm going to put some major spoilers below the cut, so proceed at your own risk!)
It's Sissy who finds the missing Stephen Blackpool when no one else can. Here's the passage where she performs what can only be called detective work:
The sun was high when they sat down to rest. They had seen no one, near or distant, for a long time; and the solitude remained unbroken. "It is so still here, Rachael, and the way is so untrodden, that I think we must be the first who have been here all the summer."
As Sissy said it, her eyes were attracted by another of those rotten fragments of fence upon the ground. She got up to look at it. "And yet I don't know. This has not been broken very long. The wood is quite fresh where it gave way. Here are footsteps too. -- O Rachael!"
She ran back, and caught her round the neck. Rachael had already started up.
"What is the matter?"
"I don't know. There is a hat lying in the grass."
They went forward together. Rachael took it up, shaking from head to foot. She broke into a passion of tears and lamentations: Stephen Blackpool was written in his own hand on the inside.
"O the poor lad, the poor lad! He has been made away with. He is lying murdered here!"
"Is there -- has the hat any blood upon it?" Sissy faltered.
They were afraid to look; but they did examine it, and found no mark of violence, inside or out. It had been lying there some days, for rain and dew had stained it, and the mark of its shape was on the grass where it had fallen. They looked fearfully about them, without moving, but could see nothing more. "Rachael," Sissy whispered, "I will go on a little by myself."
She had unclasped her hand, and was in the act of stepping forward, when Rachael caught her in both arms with a scream that resounded over the wide landscape. Before them, at their very feet, was the brink of a black ragged chasm hidden by the thick grass.
Book the Third, Chapter 6, "The Starlight"
Through her thought processes and her actions -- noticing the condition of the fence and going to examine it, finding the footprints and the hat, thinking to check the hat for blood -- Sissy demonstrates that she's worthy of the title of amateur sleuth.
(One could ask why she doesn't put this detective ability to work searching for her long-lost father. But then that's a sensitive subject for Sissy. It may be that she considers it her duty -- Dickens's heroines are always keen on doing their duty, amateur sleuths or no -- simply to stay where he left her, and wait for him to return. It's also possible that, stoutly as she would deny it, Sissy realizes deep down that it might be better for her not to find him.)
In fact, Hard Times is full of women doing detective work. Consider a couple more examples:
- Louisa, upon hearing of the robbery at the bank, immediately suspects her brother Tom, and she secretly goes to him and tries to get a confession out of him. When that doesn't work, her conviction of his guilt wavers for a time, but eventually her first instinct is proved correct. (Sissy also guesses early on that Tom is the thief.)
- Mrs. Sparsit shows great initiative and perseverance in tracking people, although she tends to grab hold of the wrong end of the stick. Because Mr. Bounderby believes that Mrs. Pegler may be somehow involved in the bank robbery, Mrs. Sparsit manages to find her and forcibly bring her to Coketown -- though all she actually accomplishes with this is to create a hilariously embarrassing situation for Mr. Bounderby. In addition, Mrs. Sparsit alone sees what's going on between Harthouse and Louisa, figures out when Louisa will be meeting Harthouse privately, and tracks her as she leaves home. She's wrong about Louisa's ultimate destination, and loses her near the journey's end, but one has to admit she puts a terrific amount of energy and effort into it: "It rained now, in a sheet of water. Mrs. Sparsit's white stockings were of many colours, green predominating; prickly things were in her shoes; caterpillars slung themselves, in hammocks of their own making, from various parts of her dress; rills ran from her bonnet, and her Roman nose."
In short, Charles Dickens deserves credit for even more influence over the detective genre than most of us have realized. I would submit that, in addition to creating "the first important detective," he did a great deal to help establish the long and honorable tradition of the female amateur sleuth.