A/ The detective novel and the interactive nature of literature, culture and society
Indeed, the Nineteenth Century saw the rise of the detective novel. W.P.Day1, quoting Albert D.Hunter2, points out that it “coincides with the appearance of real detectives and police forces” a point which reinforces “the interactive nature of literature, culture and society”. The crime novel, or detective novel, is thus, said to be the product of modern life.
a) The transport revolution and the creation of the Metropolitan Police
The novel of the Eighteen-Forties corresponds to an evolution in people’s taste. One of the most important reasons for this evolution is the extraordinary change brought about by the transport revolution, which was indeed the paramount economic event of the age. The building of the railway system drew thousands of men away from the country into the towns. The hundred of miles of line opened by the end of 1850 “produced a tremendous acceleration in the whole tempo of human affairs”3, and upon the travelling habits of Londoners.
This increasingly urban and industrial society was posing new problems which were quite beyond the capacity of the old local institutions. Inefficiency and danger could no longer be endured. Thus, the government decided to intervene “anxious to secure a better discipline and more trained force to fulfil their purposes in the new incertain world of town and machine that was coming into being”4. For, the reputation secured in London by the two Fieldings, Henry and John, in the Seventeenth-Fifties, was well deserved,
With his blind half-brother John – who succeeded him as a principal Westminster magistrate – he drew up a plan for the suppression of crime, which involved the organization of London’s first effective force.5
In the novel we are studying, Walter’s defence reaction at his first meeting with the woman in white is representative of the feeling of insecurity which reigns over London. In the Eighteen-Sixties, Hampstead Heath was a large public green on the northern perimeter of the neighbourhood of Hampstead and was notorious for the presence of highwaymen. So it is a suitable place to set dangerous encounters in fiction. A notorious place indeed, as Walter seems to be already on his guard, for, when he feels the touch of a hand on his shoulder, he immediately turns “with [his] fingers tightening round the handle of [his] stick” (47).
Autonomy in local affairs could no longer proceed for, contrary to small towns where each individual lived under the public eye, in a large town he could live, if he chose to, in absolute obscurity. When Walter decides to settle in London with Laura and Marian, it is because they are, thus, “numbered no longer with the people whose lives are open and known” (433). Needless to say that the criminals acted likewise. The maintenance of public order, the control of society in the widest sense, and the suppression of crime were then the main purpose of the Metropolitan Police. But the new police embarked, too:
upon an unceasing surveillance of all aspects of working class life, although this narrowed down particularly to the detection and, as their capacity allowed, the prevention of crime.
Together with various agencies which were also operating in the field, the decade 1829-1839 had seen plain-clothes detectives “working alongside the Metropolitan Police under the authority of local magistrates” and “in 1842, the Metropolitan Police was compelled to appoint their own plain-clothes detectives”7. Detectives whose actions were, from now on, given a special prominence in the daily papers.
Crime reports were, indeed, one of the favourite items of a press which, thanks to the “new means of rapid communication and the founding of common newsgathering agencies made possible a daily press in the province”8. Reading about crime and the carry-on in high-society certainly was, and still is, a form of entertainment and Collins was aware of it. Consequently, “Those extraordinary accidents and events which happen to few men seemed to [him] to be […] legitimate materials for fiction to work with.” (32)
We must keep in mind that, by the end of the Eighteenth Century, the novel had begun to be of considerable influence on the moral perception of the reading public, exemplifying the reality of the feelings and moral issues involved in given situations. In the Nineteenth Century, the novelty consisted in the field of observation which was the outcome of the author’s experience who brought to their pictures of life of the people, the most exact realism. A realism however, still mingled with fantasy. Emile Legouis’ statement is particularly accurate when he says that English literature “has shown, perhaps, a greater capacity than other literature for combining a love of concrete statement with a tendency to dream, a sense of reality with lyrical rapture.”
The relation of novel to life therefore implies its relation to the dark and fascinating side of life and to the reader’s taste. “Collins ranges himself, once and for all, on the side of those writers who unashamedly set out to please the great public and accept the world’s judgement”10
b) An outline of the birth of a literary genre
However, the existence of detective stories is possible, not only because of the existence of real detectives, but because of the Gothic literary form. Indeed, in the Gothic fantasy, “detectives […] fit naturally into the ‘literary space’ that is left by the disintegration of the romance quest hero”11. According to N.Frye, in purely Gothic novels, there is no such hero, for:
The complete form of the romance is clearly the successful quest; and such a completed form has three main stages: the stage of the perilous journey and the preliminary minor adventures; the crucial struggle, usually some kind of battle in which either the hero or his foe, or both, must die; and the exaltation of the hero12.
Neither Du Pont nor Valacourt, in The Mysteries of Udolpho, have such a dimension, whereas Walter proves himself to be a hero, the one who undertakes the quest, though a different one, the completion of which rounds off the story.
It is a fact, too, that the Gothic world, which may be said to belong to the world of dream and fantasy, eventually sees its closed system accessible to a new possible development, “from circular it becomes progressive, the meaningful action is no more illusion – we are in the world of the detective novel”13
It is now obvious that there is a relationship between fantasy and the detective novel which is not a matter of chance. Moreover, in comparison with the Gothic novel, from which we may conclude that no rational explanation to the elucidation of the mystery seems possible, there is no ambiguity left in the detective novel. The emphasis is placed on the responsive feeling brought about mysterious circumstances, even if the novel belongs to the supernatural explained – a genre which The Woman in White belongs to. Indeed, in Collins’ novel, actions and feelings result on the one hand from a desire to set apart Good from Evil, and on the other hand they result from a desire to solve a mystery.
Remembering these points, let us now turn to The Woman in White, for its author was said to be the major progenitor of later English detective novelists and thriller writers.
B/ The Woman in White: A first step towards the detective story?
Collins’ passion for factual accuracy, for “Truth”, “Reality”, “the Actual” as he himself puts it, his aspiration to hasten a reform of certain abuses which exists among novelists urged him to try to find a different way of dealing with the novel.
While he was attending a criminal case in 1856, he eventually discovered what might allowed him to elaborate his forthcoming novels, as he was:
impressed both by the manner in which a chain of evidence could be forged from testimonies of successive witnesses, and by the mounting effect of this upon the spectators as the case proceeded14.
Collins saw how the method could be adapted to his novels; “The succession of testimonies […] strictly unified by their march towards the same goal”15 would be the general structure of his next novel, that is The Woman in White. On this basis, together with the assertion that a good novel should be both realistic and sensational, Collins started writing a novel into which he could easily put together two genres – the Gothic novel and a new genre, which was to become the detective novel.
There is, indeed, a close relation between them. Both deal with the discovery of a mystery. Both deal with the unlikely and the rational. However, their differences mainly lie in the structural duality of one of them, and, of course, in the ending.
a) The narrative goes from mystery to characters and vice-versa.
In The Woman in White, the characters are linked to mystery. Most of them are fully conceived characters. There is, indeed, a psychological consistency in the presentation of the main ones, as, according to Collins himself, “their existence, as recognizable realities, being the sole condition on which the story can effectively be told” (32). The more the mystery deepens, the more consistency they get. For instance, we feel a very strong admiration for Marian, for her independent thought, her courage, her generosity, her ability to think and evaluate, her appraisal of Count Fosco, who comes to dominate her consciousness.
Among all the characters, Marian and Fosco are those who perfectly illustrate Collins’ statement: “It is not possible to tell a story successfully without presenting characters” (32). If we refer to Henry James in an essay on Maupassant, no characters exist without action, and no action exists without a plot, an intrigue; but it is plot, as distinct from action, which presents the opportunity to know the characters16. Indeed, as soon as the woman in white appears, a chain of mysterious events is set; progressively, all the characters are introduced, their own characteristics gradually developing into marked individuality.
Indeed, the first and the second part of the novel are nothing more than a succession of mysteries: who might the lady be? Why and under what circumstances might Anne Catherick have become acquainted with Sir Percival? What secret does she hold? Who is Fosco? Friend or foe? And so on … Walter’s partial elucidation of these mysteries, Marian’s declaration: “I am all aflame with curiosity, and I devote my whole energies to the business of discovery from this moment” (63), are representative of their determinations.
Walter’s and Marian’s investigations reveal the woman in white’s identity, she being, also, the author of the anonymous letter. However, the conviction that the person who confined the girl in an Asylum is Sir Percival results in deepening the mystery and raises new questions “the only mystery that remains is the mystery of his motives” (132). However, Marian’s and Walter’s aptitudes for solving mysteries will be all the more useful as the worst is to come with the conception and the accomplishment of the crime.
The advantage of this structure is that as soon as the crime has been committed, a change may occur in the chronological order of events without relieving the reader from suspense.
b) The narrative follows the progression of the discoveries
The tragedy having occurred, the novel embarks on “what a Man’s resolution can achieve” (33). From now on, the narrative follows, not the development of the crime itself, but that of the investigation, and therefore, the order of Walter’s discoveries.
After his long absence, during which he missed the eventful machinations led by Sir Percival and Count Fosco, Walter has to piece the events together for his “own guidance” (435). Thus, the ensuing stories of both Marian and Laura give a view of the previous events, the former partially filling the gaps of the narrative purposely left by the author. Indeed, the detective must know at least as much as the reader, if not yet more than him.
It is plain, too, that the unravelling of the web wound by the criminals can only start once the crime has been committed. As a consequence, the story takes an entirely new direction as the narrative turns towards Walter’s work of detection. Indeed, Walter is compelled to undertake his investigations in the reverse order of the course of past events. The reader is to follow him from the end to the start, that is from the statement of facts to Anne’s grave at Limmeridge, so revisiting places familiar to us. Instead of losing interest in the story, on the contrary the reader is compelled to take a new one as he knows that these places are not devoid of danger.
Indeed, Walter’s journey at Blackwater forcefully recalls past events. When Walter tells Marian that he is determined to go there, she exclaims, quite disconcerted: “To Blackwater!” (469), conscious, as we are, too, that the threat of some imminent danger is still looming ahead. However, once back at Limmeridge, where the restitution of identities takes place we have come full circle. The logical succession of events is clear. Reader and characters are now free from a feeling of anxiety which has been all the more sustained as Walter’s investigations has been made at a quick pace.
c) The technological progress: a new opportunity at the service of the detective
Indeed, travelling by train is a new, determining and efficacious means to carry-on investigations. It obviously enables Walter to act quickly and successfully.
Some thirty years or so before Holmes and Watson arrive in the nick of time to catch their train at Paddington, we find Walter walking “briskly to the station” (502), or “speeding back to London by the express train” (564). Free to travel by morning, afternoon, or evening trains, he can organize his inquest as he pleases. It enables him to return to the sources of the villainy, to trace back to those who are guilty, and to determine the hour of the crime. A discovery that is literally of ultimate importance. The date of Laura’s journey to London is, indeed, highly significant since; “The one chance of proving that she is a living woman, centres in the discovery of that state.” (470)
Precise time and date is, too, characteristic of the new era of technological and scientific progress. As a result it becomes, more than ever today, an essential criterion on which to prove a criminal’s culpability. Once “the date was positively established by the master’s order-book” (634) of the man who “had been employed to drive the fly” (634) from the station to Fosco’s lodging, the proof is definitely established. However, to come to the conclusion causes Walter difficulties as few witnesses attach importance to time and date. It is very interesting to note that this fact reveals a discrepancy between two ages. The witnesses’ ignorance of time leaves the modern reader more exasperated than Walter is. Unable to obtain it precisely, he is, however, frustrated in his attempt to act as quickly as he would like to. “Hopeless of obtaining assistance” (472) from the witnesses, he first exclaims, “It seemed like a fatality!” (472), and then acknowledges that, in fact he “had expected nothing from them” (475). Going back through time will then necessitate more ingenuity on his behalf.
d) The setting of a structural duality
Another characteristic feature of this narrative lies in its first step towards setting a structural duality typical of the ensuing detective novels.
Regarding the part of the novel dealing with Walter’s work of detection, two parallel stories are contained. One is only known by the author and criminals, who, indeed, are the only ones who know, from the start, the hows and whys. The other story is the one that is told. Indeed, in the modern detective novel, particularly the ‘whodunit’, the narrator’s story, that is the one which is told, in fact precedes the existence of a logical solution since the narrator cannot know how the elucidation might occur.
However, Collins does not yet entirely differentiate the typical aspects of the telling of a detective story, which would have given his story more perspective. He does not differentiate the account of the events from the speech of the detective. In The Woman in White, the disclosure of the truth and the narrator’s story fuse, for detective and narrator are one and the same person. Contrary to the adventures of Sherlock Holmes, for instance, it is Holmes, and not Watson, the narrator, who always has the last word. He is the only one able to enlighten both the reader and the narrator on points which would otherwise remain in the dark.
“The little which I [Watson] had yet to learn of the case was told me by Sherlock Holmes as we travelled back next day”
The existence of a narrator, who literally does not know what he says, or writes, corresponds to the genuine and paradoxical style of ensuing detective novels. The narrative exists merely to seek a further story that is distinct from the initial one and never merges with it. In one sense, the narrative of the work of detection is, thus, impossible to relate18. Yet, this is not the characteristic feature of The Woman in White: Walter, being both chronicler and actor, is not left with the dilemma of a choice of details essentials to his statement.
He uses material that choice, not chance has given him. Collins has given him the responsibility of both executing the inquiry and narrating it. He will just use this type of narrative in The Moonstone, into which Gabriel Betterage, the narrator, is not the detective. The utmost difficulties he has in organizing his story, not knowing where to begin or end, already stresses the difficulty mentioned above. “I went to my writing-desk to start the story. There I have sat helpless […] ever since.”19
The question of “how I am to start the story”20 is not the privilege of Betterage. Watson, too, is struck by the difficulty he experiences in having to pick out “examples which shall in every way answer [his] purpose”21. Marian who, is the only one to experience such difficulties, says: “Let me get back first to the place at which I left off, or I shall lose myself in the confusion of my own thoughts.” (290)
She may be seen as an initial contribution to the development of the fictional detective’s companion.
However, despite Walter’s function in the novel, we can discern in it the structural duality inherent to detective stories. Indeed, the author manages to keep secret the hows and whys as Walter’s narrative cannot reveal more than is necessary at a time. Walter tells us the story of his investigations as if he were tracing the course of his inquiries not knowing how the elucidation might occur, relating his own experience, word for word, as a narrator, as distinct from the detective, would have done it.
C/ Establishing the evidence and cornering the offenders: the basis of the detective novels
a) Out of the inadequacy of the Law comes the detective
If Walter is endowed with the responsibility of carrying out an inquiry, it is because he is the only one to be trusted. The author has already hinted, in the preamble of the novel, at the inability of the Law to establish the case. He subsequently even shows irony at the expense of legal procedure: “It is the great beauty of the Law that it can dispute any human statement, made under any circumstances, and reduced to any form.” (154-155)
These words uttered by Mr Gilmore, the lawyer of the Fairlie family, reveal the conceit of legal representatives. They are unaware of their inability to judge the severity of a case. We therefore feel the intervention of Walter is even more necessary; as Mr Gilmore declares:
My own conviction was that they [the probabilities stated by Sir Percival] were plainly with him, and I accordingly declare that his explanation was, to my mind, unquestionably a satisfactory one. (155)
Indeed, without the detective’s action and his perseverance, the Law could not have helped poor Laura. Moreover, the burden of establishing the culpability of Sir Percival and Fosco obviously rests on Walter.
Another explanation of the lack of concern of the Law in the case may be because it is not a murder, an outstanding crime whose criminals show barbarity and ruthlessness enough to powerfully grip the public imagination. It may reflect the arbitrary nature of a system as well as the author’s feeling of disappointment in the methods to dispense justice which fall short of his expectations.
Although Percival and Fosco are not sanguinary criminals, they are, nevertheless, true criminals who would have deserved to be prosecuted in a law court.
b) Walter and his opponents: an unequal challenge
From the outset we know that Walter and the two women have “no mercy to expect from Count Fosco and Sir Percival Glyde” (452). Then, it is clear that his investigation exposes him to the determination of his enemies who obstruct him, one by trickery, and one by threat. Such are the enduring rules of the game in detective stories.
Fosco, who is the master of crime, is an incredible creation, who can but rarely be found in detective fiction. This man, who confesses that he “personally resembles Napoleon the Great” (615) in his skill to plan out the conspiracy as if a military campaign, openly advocates crime. He criticizes the police efficiency in crime hunting, asserting that “Good criminals” (256) remain out of their reach. He gives a description of the detective novel long before it had been coined:
‘ The hiding of a crime, or the detection of a crime, what is it? A trial of skill between the police on one side, and the individual on the other.’ (256)
Here is, indeed, the general outline of Walter’s narrative as it depicts a trial of skill between himself and the two criminals.
Fosco organizes his crime as a mere game worthy of a chessplayer. Thus, he considers “the first move in the game” (625), then thinks about “the second move” (620). Finally, an “immense conception” (620) awakens in his mind with the “whole force” (620) of his intelligence, the details of which occur to him in “all their masterly combination” (621).
Like his fellow criminals in subsequent fiction, he is merciless and prepared to kill for money. If Anne Catherick “had not died when she did” (632) he, indeed, “should have […] extended to the captive […] a happy release” (632). Like them he is endowed with weak point. It is not yet alcoholic addiction or gambling. It is the noblest: one love:
‘ Nothing but my fatal admiration for Marian restrained me from stepping in my own rescue when she effected her sister’s escape […] Deplorable and uncharacteristic fault! Behold the cause, in my heart – behold, in the image of Marian Halcombe, the first and last weakness of Fosco’s life! ‘ (631)
Once trapped by the detective he provides him with a full confession of his crime and disappears. However, contrary to most of the criminals in fiction, he does it in a quite astonishing way. Thanks to his eloquence and theatrical manner he treats us to the most brilliant display of fireworks. The last but not least is, indeed, his final appearance. In the presence of Walter, he writes his confession, apparently not the least affected by his desperate situation, no matter how pathetic the reader may find him. This old, “immensely fat man” (246), dressed in the most extravagant fine clothes, dazzles us by a performance which leaves Walter: “impressed” (613). As if he were to hold the stage all by himself, he “cleared his voice, and began” (613) … to write! And then the show goes on, writing with “great noise and rapidity” (613):
slip after slip, by dozens, by fifties, by hundreds, flew over his shoulders on either side of him till he had snowed himself up in paper all around his chair. (613)
The crowning piece is the way he then “sat down cross-legged on the floor among his papers” (614) to string them together after having exclaimed in an outburst of vanity “Bravo!” (614), congratulating himself while looking Walter ‘straight in the face with a smile of superb triumph” (614).
This confrontation, so typical of modern detective novels, nevertheless does not yet give the detective his due. However intelligent Walter may be, he is far from being of Fosco’s stature.
Compared to this giant, Percival looks a pale fool. Driven into a corner by Walter’s firmness of purpose, he behaves like a downright crook. Marian’s fears prove to be justified, at least partially,
‘ I believe he will insist on meeting you single-handed […] His own interests will then be directly threatened, and he will act, Walter, to terrible purpose in his own defence’ (501)
Knowing that his crime has been discovered, Percival, who is no longer under Fosco’s power, in unable to find a suitable way out. His only attempt to free himself is to reiterate a similar act of villainy, that is to commit a new imposture at the very place where he committed the first one years ago. He has Walter followed by two of his thugs who attack him at Old Welmingham, and then take him before a magistrate who charges him with assault.
Forced to come back to the very scene of the crime, his misconceived and miscalculated plan of action, as well as the trap laid for Walter, prove, once again, his lack of self-control and his lack of imagination. That is why Fosco alone can leave the ‘stage’ in adopting one of Sheridan’s epigrams: “I go – and leave my character behind me” (259). Few of his successors will enjoy such an immortality.
Fosco’s superb self-control on all occasions, his ability to grasp a situation and calculate how to turn it to advantage make him a convincing hero of detective stories. In Collins’ masterful creation appears the beginnings of a criminal able to premeditate a Machiavellian crime: a criminal who will be as clever as the greatest detectives in fiction; that is a man of action. It is clearly illustrated by Fosco’s very words when he says to Marian:
‘ Do not, I implore you, force me into action – ME, the Man of Action -‘ (469)
c) Walter, a hero drawn from Gothic fantasy
Once the crime has been committed, once the main protagonists have settled in London, the characters as well as the reader leave the Gothic world and its atmosphere, in which they had been trapped since the beginning of the events. However, all have difficulties to free themselves from a state of enthralment. Marian, though conscious that she has returned to the conventional world, is still enthralled by her vision of Blackwater world and its inhabitants. Her recollection of Fosco’s “hateful admiration of herself” (570) increases her “inborn dread” (570), and she nearly loses self-control at the idea of Fosco’s threatening presence in London. “Her voice fell low, her manner was hesitating, her eyes searched into mine [Walter’s] with an eager fear.” (570)
It is also plain that Walter does not immediately take some analytical distance from what occurs before his eyes. His account of his journey to the grave of Laura Fairlie, and of his encounter with Marian and Laura at the churchyard where the latter is supposed to be buried, reveals the fragility of his self, and an obvious tendency for irrational belief:
The voice that was praying me faltered, and sank low – Then rose on a sudden, and calls affrightedly, called despairingly to me to come away. But the veiled woman had possession of me, body and soul. (431)
It is, however, the very last time that Walter has to experience such a feeling. From now on, he will behave with composure, and we can side with W.P.Day when he says that “out of Gothic fantasy comes the detective”22. Although Walter is not yet a real hero of action, he becomes a man of understanding. Once back in London, he recovers the entire power of his sensibility. He can now fulfil the functions of a detective. Contrary to the traditional Gothic hero, he is able to develop that which W.P.Day calls “a capacity of combining and revising that which is already in existence”23, even if the passing from the irrational to the conventional world is a painful experience, too distressing to be either recorded or recalled,
The history of the interval which I thus pass over must remains unrecorded. My heart turns faint, my mind sinks in darkness and confusion when I think of it. This must not be, if the clue that leads through the windings of the story is to remain from end to end untangled in my hands. (433)
Walter’s next and final narrative gives a new turn to the novel as the story opens up on a new world into which the roles are reversed. Likewise, it is no more the story of Evil in action, but the story of Good in action, that is a man’s work of detection. This change is all the more noticeable since Walter’s report forms a contrast to the former narratives. In fact, the author adopts the concise technique, at times even a crisp style, which the forthcoming detective novel writers were to impose on the genre. Walter’s narrative clearly reflects the beginnings of this new genre, and the inherent qualities of its hero.
d) A man of understanding and courage
Fascinated and active in the hunt to find out more about the mystery woman, Walter is, thus, the only character who can be relied on for help once the crime has been committed. After recovering from the shock of his meeting with the living Laura, he immediately engages himself in trapping the culprits to restore her identity and to prove it to others; in other words, as he says himself: “to fight her battle, and to win the way back for her to her place in the world of living beings” (434).
Feeling “all the strength of [his] resolution stirring in [him] vigorously from head to foot” (502), he never shrinks before his enemies. Moreover he has the intelligence to judge them for what they are really worth. Before acting, he first considers how he “might arm [himself] most securely at the outset for the coming struggle with Sir Percival and the Count” (434). Like modern fictional detectives, he immediately takes up the challenge, no matter how great the danger may be, but without underestimating his enemies’ strength. However he does not yet overestimate his own capabilities. We cannot put the contemptuous words of Holmes into his mouth when he says,
‘ This great and sombre stage [London] is set for something more worthy than that. […] It is fortunate for this community that I am not a criminal’24
Neither can we apply Poirot’ words, who after his unmasking of a crime dreamily says to his faithful friend, Hasting:
‘Ma foi, they [criminal classes] even employ me when they themselves fail!’25
If Walter does not display such self-confidence or contempt it is because he is the embodiment of a character who is not yet of the calibre of the forthcoming detectives in fiction. Another reason, however, is the fact that he is not meant to portray any kind of detective. He is only a man with a compelling interest in the solving of the crime. What he does, he does it because of his love for Laura and the promise he made before he left Limmeridge House:
‘ If ever the time comes, when the devotion of my whole heart and soul and strength will […] spare you a moment’s sorrow, will you try to remember the poor drawing-master who taught you?’ (434)
He does it, too, because of a strong sense of justice and compassion. Indeed, now in London, he takes Laura and her sister under his wing for their protection. If he swears to “support, to protect, to cherish” (435) Laura, he, above all, swears “to restore”, “to vindicate” (435) her, however great the peril may be.
Because of the threat which hangs over the two victims, and himself, he is sensible enough to realize that Laura must be concealed at all costs before having to start establishing the criminal nature of Fosco and Percival. Thus, in a present fraught with peril, he certainly undertakes his work with courage, determination and carefulness. He shows himself to be really methodical in his investigation.
D/ The work of detection in The Woman in White
a) Walter’s investigations
In the carrying out of the inquiry, Walter does things with order and intelligence.
After having considered what his future plan of action should be, and having ascertained from the family lawyer that no “legal remedy” (456) lay within their reach, Walter decides to begin by “gathering together as many facts as could be collected” (456) in order to get an idea of the case. “The journal kept at Blackwater Park by Marian Halcombe” (456) is, thus, the first document from which he can draw his first conclusions:
In the first place, I saw darkly what the nature of the conspiracy had been, how chances had been watched, and how circumstances had been handled to ensure impunity to a daring and an intricate crime […]. The second conclusion came as the necessary consequence of the first. We three had no mercy to expect from Count Fosco and Sir Percival Glyde. (452)
Adopting the real detectives’ method, Walter, then, decides to get additional evidence from people who had been in touch with the victims just before one died and the other was put into an asylum. Indeed, the carrying out of an inquiry implies following some pre-established procedure scrupulously. As Agatha Christie puts it in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, “the first question that’s always asked is ‘ who last saw the victims alive?”26 In questioning first the last persons who saw the victims alive and free, Walter is, thus, one of the first detective in fiction who puts into practice a method that was to be constantly found in detective novels. He, then, takes great care to gain the most reliable evidence “without exciting suspicion” (457) and he selects the most appropriate witnesses. He, thus, obtains “the narratives of the housekeeper, of the doctor, of Jane Gould, and of Hester Pinhorn” (458), that is the very last people who saw Anne Catherick alive.
This first evidence allows him to widen the field of his investigations as it leads him to go and question other witnesses outside the sphere of London, where the crime has actually been committed, to places where it has originally been planned. The procedure of his investigations thus follows the usual and general method undertaken by detectives. If, until now, “the date at which the occurrence happened” (473) remains unknown to Walter, his method nevertheless leads him to the roots of the conspiracy and forces the reader to speculate about clues which are given by the successive witnesses.
Walter’s cleverness, however, prevents us from getting lost throughout the “windings of the story” (433). Aware that the necessary knowledge is of what to observe, he shows skill in selecting the most relevant information. Thus, he carefully “took the notes [he] wanted” (477) while Marian goes on reading her manuscript, “in the event of their proving to of importance at any future period” (477); likewise he notes down addresses and names of possible witnesses “on the chance […] that it might be useful at some future time to apply to” (494). Thanks to his power of reasoning, the selected pieces of the puzzle progressively fit into each other.
Proceeding by induction and deduction, he reaches conclusions which either confirm or invalidate the probabilities he has previously formulated. He, thus, suspects the date of Laura’s journey to be wrong, a fact that has not crossed Marian’s mind: “What makes you think it might have been after?” (470) she asks in astonishment.
Each statement “taken in connection with certain facts […] suggested one plain conclusion” (574) which in its turn, taken in connection with new statements suggests new conclusions:
At this point I took up the conclusions which I had previously formed, and the same mental process which had discovered the locality of the concealed crime, now lodge the register also in the vestry of Old Welmingham Church. (515)
The results are, thus, achieved by the very essence of Walter’s method. As in all works of detection, Walter’s progress in the inquiry comes from the accuracy of his judgement and from considerations “all steadily converging to one point” (515):
A multitude of small considerations in connection with this subject – trifling enough in themselves, but strikingly important when massed together – had latterly led my mind to a conclusion which I resolved to verify” (573)
However, his success does not only come from his analytical power. Indeed, together with analytical abilities, he shows ingenuity and perseverance.
Fearing that, if he fails, “the wrong that Laura has suffered” (581) could “never be redressed” (581), he is more determined than ever to “fasten [his] hold firmly on the villain who had married her” (475). If the initial failures subsequent to his first inquiries clear the way towards significant discoveries later, they, generally, “in no sense daunted” him (475), for they are a means of dismissing wrong tracks. However, when it happens that the pursuit of his object ended in leaving him “face to face with the most palpable and the most disheartening failure” (491), he experiences “fresh doubts, fresh difficulties” (521) which cause him to remain puzzled, wondering, “what was I do next?” (521). He, nonetheless, endeavours not to let himself be discouraged by a setback which takes the form of an “interminable prospect” (521).
Failure, thus, does not lessen the detective’s acumen. On the contrary, it seems to sharpen his intelligence and to stimulate his ingenuity. As the first resources fail, Walter determines to force the villains “from their position of security” (471). The only sure hold he can have on them must, then, come from the discovery of the weak points of the conspiracy. He, thus, succeeds in cornering Percival, discovering “the weak place […] in Sir Percival’s life” (471), that is the Secret. Then, taking his last chance with Fosco, he manages to get the date of Laura’s journey to London, as it is there that “lies the weak point of the whole conspiracy” (581).
A reassuring outcome, indeed, as the reader cannot help wondering whether any solution to the situation is possible. It is also interesting to note that, this time, the opposition between the recurring verbs “seem” and “be”, which is constantly made, is representative of Walter’s speculations, interrogations, finding out and probing.
Finally, the conclusions which he draws result from a power of reasoning combined with a capacity to make suppositions from evidence. They result, too, from an indisputable imaginative brain:
The considerations thus presented to me in the diary joined to certain surmises of my own that grew out of them, suggested a conclusion which I wondered I had not arrived at before. (584)
Assuming then that these suppositions have “a foundation in truth” (585), he acts according to his own convictions, the objects of the conspiracy becoming to his mind, progressively more “intelligible” (584).
Having an organized mind, being clever in the use of reasoning, such are the major qualities that a detective must possess; such are Walter’s qualities. The reason why he finally manages to discover the Secret, the woman in white’s real identity, the part that Fosco played in the conspiracy, and the way it has been planned, come from these qualities that Walter undeniably possesses.
b) A tentative conclusion
In the novel, the presence of a character who acts like a detective, his account of his own work of detection, the content of the intrigue as well as its ending and the solving of the plot, are part of the formula that can be found in nearly all the ensuing detective stories. Indeed, The Woman in White is of the same sort since the story focuses on the restoration of order and meaning. The detective’s function is to discover why the crime has been committed, and to “free the innocents from the terror of guilt and uncertainty”27. He challenges both “the disorder brought on by crime and the monsters in the shape of the criminals, returning the world to order and stability”28.
On the whole, the story deals with the theme of a struggle between those opposing forces of Good and Evil, which is, indeed, the theme of all detective stories.
It is also clear that in The Woman in White, the intrigue has been built a posteriori, Collins having chosen the solution that seems the most ingenious, and, after that, conceived the proper crime and circumstances. The beginning, in fact, is dependent on the ending.
The actual details of the plot came from a collection of French criminal records […]. Among them [was] the story of the Marquise of Drouhault, who was drugged on a journey and then locked up in prison under a false name. Since she was presumed to be dead, her brother inherited her estate. (12)
Such are the raw materials that Collins found the most suitable to illustrate “what a Woman’s patience can endure, and what a Man’s resolution can achieve” (33). Without the woman in white’s tragic end, her presence from the outset of the story to the close would not make any sense. The whole story is conditioned by her destiny. Such is the way a detective story is written.
However, Walter does not exploit enigmatic remarks and actions. He only attaches importance to facts and evidence. Neither is he challenging us to a battle of wits, as we never yield to the temptation to match our own shrewdness against his. It is clear, also, that physically Walter has no consistency. He is deprived of any distinctive and characteristic feature inherent to the ensuing detectives in fiction. Sergeant Cuff, in The Moonstone, is, indeed, the first of a long line of this type of hero, who is an “admirable mingling of fact and fancy”29 so typical of it. Finally, Walter does not possess an essential detail: the eagle eye that allows the detective to see farther than we do. Only Collins’ next hero will be endowed with eyes “of a steely light grey” which:
had a very disconcerting trick, when they encountered your eyes, of looking as if they expected something more from you than you were aware of yourself”30
As there is no trace of these aspects that are the essence of the detective novel, The Woman in White, nevertheless, undeniably possesses some of its most characteristic features. And we side with J.M.Stewart when he says that in comparison with the contemporary ‘thrillers’, which does not really take into consideration the reader’s interest in the elucidation of a crime, “the resources of Wilkie Collins are […] inexhaustible”31. As he focuses his attention on the plot of the novel rather than on the sensational events, he manages to make it
“as closely-knit and logical as the plot of a classical drama […]. One has only to read The Woman in White, The Moonstone, to realise how great and necessary this innovation was.”32
Subsequent detective novel writers were, indeed, influenced by Collins. We recognize the debt owed to him by writers of the standing of Dorothy Sayers and Raymond Chandler.