Does Mr. Bucket actually conceal more than he reveals?
Bleak House is not simply a novel in which mysterious events take place, but a novel in which EVERY event is cloaked in mystery. From the opening pages, we understand that everything is covered in a fog – not just the thick London fog, but a moral fog and darkness that permeates the entire life of the novel, emanating from the Courts and the Aristocracy. There is not just one character that holds a secret – all the characters do. With such a backdrop, one would assume that the character of a detective would aid in clearing the fog – “solving the mystery” – but Mr. Bucket seems to not bring truth to light, but only further conceal it.
The name of the detective himself, perhaps the most clearly metaphorical name in the novel, speaks not only of ‘depth’, but of ‘concealment’. Just as Tulkinghorn is a repository of the secrets of the landed gentry, Bucket conceals in his ‘depths’ the secrets of the City of London itself – and seemingly, all who inhabit it. He goes into those places – Tom-All-Alone’s and the poorer areas of London such as the Shooting Gallery – where Tulkinghorn will not go. Bucket is able to go into these secret places because, unlike a man with Tulkinghorn’s status, he will not be seen. More importantly, he will not be recognized.
If Bucket is a master of concealment, the thing he conceals most effectively is himself. When we first meet him, it is as if he has simply appeared in the room: “standing with an attentive face between himself and the lawyer, at a little distance from the table, a person with a hat and stick in his hand who was not there when he himself came in, and has not since entered by the door or by either of the windows” (355). It is not surprising that the darkness of the ‘inner city’ streets of London at night is where Bucket is most at home, as Dickens based the character on a real detective, Charles Fielding, with whom he took many night patrols along London streets. Add to this the fact that, like a real-life Sherlock Holmes, Dickens had the layout of city of London practically memorized.
Bucket conceals himself, but also his motives. Whenever he ‘questions a suspect’ or hopes to draw information from a source, he does so in the most strangely conversational and non-combative of ways. The most interesting (and simply enjoyable to read) example of this is when he gathers information from one of the Dedlock servants, moving from ‘small talk’ about the servant’s height to direct questioning:
“’You’re so well put together that I shouldn’t have thought it. But the household troops, though considered fine men, are built so straggling. – Walks by night, does she? When it’s moonlight, though?’
O yes. When it’s moonlight! Of course. O, of course! Conversational and acquiescent on both sides” (814).
Even when questioning / gathering information, Bucket not only conceals his motives but his methods. He questions without questioning, making direct statements when he has a suspicion (i.e. “Your name, old gentleman, is Smallweed; that’s what your name is; I know it well”). Again, a great example of this is when he ‘questions’ the servant, providing an alibi for Lady Dedlock’s innocence based on a suspicion:
“’To be sure,’ says Mr. Bucket. ‘That makes a difference. Now I think of it,’ says Mr. Bucket, warming his hands, and looking pleasantly at the blaze, ‘she went out walking, the very night of this business.’
‘To be sure she did! I let her in the garden over the way.’
‘And left her there. Certainly you did. I saw you doing it.’
‘I didn’t see you,’ says Mercury.
‘I was rather in a hurry,’ returns Mr Bucket” (814).
Bucket conceals himself, his motives, and even his solutions. In a trope that will become a staple of the detective genre, Bucket does not reveal the solution until the end. As Agatha Christie will make famous with her own detective, Hercule Poirot, Bucket gathers all suspects into the ‘accusing parlor’ and only reveals the murderess at the very end:
“’The party to be apprehended is now in this house,’ proceeds Mr Bucket, putting up his watch with a steady hand, and with rising spirits, ‘and I’m about to take her into custody in your presence’” (829). Even near the end of the novel, Bucket does not reveal to Esther that she is actually looking at the body of her mother but urges her to ‘think a moment’ (914).
At the end of the novel, it is not even Bucket the detective that can solve the mystery. He is too much a part of the mysterious world and can only further conceal. Ultimately, it takes the “Summer sun” to clear away the fog from Bleak House.