The year-end magazine stories of Charles Dickens were collected in 1871, just after his death, under the comical title Christmas Stories. At first I was reading them for the sake of completeness and curiosity, but as the years passed (Dickens's years, not mine) they become more interesting. The last two, “No Thoroughfare” (1867) and “The Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices” (1857), are both co-written with Wilkie Collins. The latter is a picaresque ragbag, the former a short novel. Both are good. This was a period not just of Peak Dickens, but of Peak Collins – The Moonstone was also published in 1868, in between the two stories.
The title of “No Thoroughfare” is not so good. I will stick with that one today.
“No Thoroughfare” is a kind of murder mystery. Part of it is set in an orphanage. A little bit of sensation, a little bit of tear-jerking. It hits a lot of Dickens and\or Collins buttons. They are recycling, but Dickens always recycled, that is how he moved forward. A dangerous trip across a snow-filled Alpine pass is something new to Dickens.
The editor of the Oxford Illustrated Dickens edition has identified who wrote what, although I could mostly tell. I want to save that for “The Lazy Tour,” though, where she does not say but I could always tell.
The mystery as such is not bad. It is centered on a love triangle, and what else, I ask, given that the murder (attempted) in Our Mutual Friend (1864) and murder (completed, probably) in The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870) are caused by love triangles, with the man who cannot possibly win the woman becoming twisted and evil from frustration and jealousy – likely more from the latter. Dickens had become occupied with the idea of evil, and this is how he explored it. If the exploration is not so profound in “No Thoroughfare” it is still surprisingly interesting as a bridge between the two novels.
I would like to quote from the eventful and even exciting murder scene, but I am not sure the keenest touches make much sense without the context. How about the very beginning, then:
Day of the month and year, November the thirtieth, one thousand eight hundred and thirty-five. London Time by the great clock of Saint Paul’s, ten at night. All the lesser London churches strain their metallic throats. Some, flippantly begin before the heavy bell of the great cathedral; some, tardily begin three, four, half-a-dozen, strokes behind it; all are in sufficiently near accord, to leave a resonance in the air, as if the winged father who devours his children, had made a sounding sweep with his gigantic scythe in flying over the city.
It may not be the muddy megalosaurus that introduces Bleak House, but it is pure, clear Dickens. It is another bit of recycling, too, evoking his little 1844 Christmas book The Chimes. Those excessive commas are a guide to whoever is reading the passage aloud. There is one more chime lagging, “lower than most of the rest,” that belongs to the orphanage and pulls me down from the steeples to the ground where a veiled lady “flutters to and fro,” about to launch the mystery.