Analysis of Charles Dickens’s Hunted Down

First published in the New York Ledger in three parts in 1859, this story is one of the few by Charles Dickens that is widely regarded as Detective Fiction. It is narrated by Mr. Sampson, the retired chief manager of an insurance office, who is a believer in physiognomy—reading faces—as a means of interpreting character. He recounts how at work he had a glass partition through which he could see but not hear visitors, and how one day he saw a gentleman for whom he conceived an immediate and intense dislike. The man is well dressed and about 40, and he wears his hair “elaborately brushed and oiled” and “parted straight up the middle.” The parting in his hair becomes the focus of Sampson’s dislike, for to him it seems to declare, “You must take me, if you please, my friend, just as I show myself. Come straight up here, follow the gravel path, keep off the grass, I allow no trespassing.”

Over the course of several encounters, Sampson’s instinctive dislike is overcome by Slinkton’s apparent politeness and generosity. Sampson writes a life insurance policy for Slinkton’s friend, Beckwith, with Slinkton as character reference and beneficiary. But all is not as it seems. Several months later Sampson meets Slinkton and his niece, Miss Niner, at the beach at Scarborough. Miss Niner confides that she is ill and will soon die, just as her sister did not long before, and praises her uncle for his devotion. She also points out an “invalid old gentleman” and his servant on the sands who have been shadowing her. When Slinkton leaves to go swimming, Sampson reveals that she is in danger— not from her “shadow” but from her uncle. The “invalid” and the servant have been waiting to spirit her away to safety.

A couple of months later Sampson is called in to see Slinkton’s neighbor and friend, Beckwith. His rooms are dingy and he is apparently an inveterate drunkard whose drinking has been encouraged by Slinkton for the £2,000 in insurance money that his policy will pay. But Slinkton has been drawn into a trap. Beckwith is no drunk; he has been throwing away the brandy his “friend” has been plying him with. He reveals that he is Meltham, the insurance agent who made out the policy for Slinkton’s dead niece, and that he has thrown himself in Slinkton’s path to hunt him down by finding evidence of a worse crime: the murder of his niece and attempted murder of her sister. Finding Slinkton’s journal that recounts dates and doses of poison, he has the evidence he needs for Slinkton to be prosecuted. However, Slinkton poisons himself and dies before he can be turned over to the authorities. Meltham, torn with regret that he could only save the second sister— he was the mysterious “shadow” on the beach—dies a few months later, leaving all he has to Miss Niner.

For a story that revolves around deception, this tale is interesting given the subterfuge of its narrator, the apparently forthright Mr. Sampson. Early in the story he mentions but fails to name a visitor to his home, who was undoubtedly Meltham. He obscures the reason for his trip to Scarborough as a need for “a breath of sea air”—in actuality, the invalid he meets on the beach is Meltham in disguise, at the ready to rescue Miss Niner. Similarly, he explains his appearance at Beckwith/Meltham’s rooms at the end of the story as an appointment in “some chambers in the Temple.” Of course, within the world of the story, Sampson must hide the truth to protect Miss Niner and to trap Slinkton. But his deceptions in relaying his story to the reader are of a different order: Their function is to keep the reader in suspense. They enable him to give the impression that he is recounting the events of the story as he experienced them while withholding information crucial to understanding Slinkton and the trap laid for him.

The necessity for a narrator-detective to share information with the reader was later enshrined as one of the “10 commandments” for how detective fiction should work by Ronald Knox, but Sampson is not the detective of the story. His astute perceptions about Slinkton’s real character merely ensure that he is more readily persuaded to rescue Miss Niner and aid in Slinkton’s exposure by the story’s detective: Meltham.

Dickens had a strong interest in crime and police work. He wrote articles about his expeditions into London’s underworld with Inspector Field of Scotland Yard (the model, it is widely believed, for Inspector Bucket in his novel Bleak House), as well as about infamous criminals of the day, including the “gentleman” poisoners, Thomas Griffiths Wainewright and Dr. William Palmer. These two murderers have been suggested as inspirational in Dickens’s portrayal of Slinkton. Palmer’s 1856 trial caused a national sensation, for the doctor had poisoned at least 16 people, including his own children, his mother-in-law, and his wife (on whom he had taken out a large insurance policy). In his article “The Demeanour of Murderers” (published in Household Words in June 1856), Dickens suggests that such apparent “complete self-possession” as Palmer’s during the trial is in fact “always to be looked for and counted on, in the case of a very wicked murderer.” Further, he declares, “Nature never writes a bad hand. Her writing, as it may be read in the human countenance, is invariably legible, if we come at all trained to the reading of it.”

Like Palmer, Slinkton is a contradiction: He can pass as respectable and so carry out his terrible crimes, yet apparently the physical signs of guilt that indicate his criminality are “written” on his face. This premise was comforting: Through research and education the world could be made predictable. Criminals could be detected and caught, and the world made safe from their predations. Such a perception was crucial to the subsequent rise of criminal anthropology that sought to tie physical characteristics (e.g., a sloping forehead) to criminal behavior. But it was also crucial to the emergence of the classic detective genre that became popular in the final decade of the century and beyond, with its detectives such as Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, who could use the science of deduction to unravel even the most complex mysteries.

Allingham, Philip V. “Dickens’s ‘Hunted Down’ (1859): A First-Person Narrative of Poisoning and Life-Insurance Fraud Influenced by Wilkie Collins.” The Victorian Web: Literature, History, and Culture in the Age of Victoria.
Dickens, Charles. Hunted Down. London: Peter Owen, 1996.

Categories: Detective Novels, Literature, Short Story

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