The Highwayman and Mr. Dickens: An Account of the Strange Events of the Medusa Murders

The Highwayman and Mr. Dickens: An Account of the Strange Events of the Medusa Murders

The Highwayman and Mr. Dickens: An Account of the Strange Events of the Medusa Murders

The Highwayman and Mr. Dickens: An Account of the Strange Events of the Medusa Murders

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Charles Dickens helps hunt for a double murder on the gritty streets of London in a historical mystery with “plenty of Victoriana” (Booklist).
It was the best of times, it was the worst of crimes . . .
The ghastly double murder of a society doctor’s beautiful wife and her maid reunites celebrated novelist Charles Dickens, his protegé Wilkie Collins, and the formidable Inspector Field of the Metropolitan Protectives in another brilliant quest for justice. They manage to defend old friend and ex-burglar Tally Ho Thompson, who’s arrested at the scene—but then the case takes the men from the pestilential cells of Newgate to the city’s steamiest dives. Gamblers, thieves, swells, whores, and Collins’s fiery lover, Irish Meg, will all join in chasing a killer who is the stuff of nightmares . . .
This is the thrilling follow-up to The Detective and Mr. Dickens—praised as “a superb performance” by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and “a delightful hot toddy of a read” by the Los Angeles Times.


Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781626817333
Publisher: Diversion Books
Publication date: 02/06/2019
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: eBook
Pages: 273
Sales rank: 185,232
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Wilkie Collins (1824–1889) was an English playwright and novelist. A close friend and frequent collaborator of Charles Dickens’s, he is best known as the author of The Moonstone and The Woman in White, “sensation novels” widely recognized as forerunners of modern suspense. 

Read an Excerpt


An Inconvenient Knock

January 9, 1852 — early evening

Our second adventure on duty with Inspector Field began one evening (not too late, half past eight or so) with an inconvenient knock on the door of my new lodgings in Soho.

I had taken these new rooms for clandestine, even sinister, reasons that I could never discuss anywhere but in this secret journal. Since beginning these journals under the ghostly inspiration of "the Inimitable" on the day of his great funeral in the Abbey, I have found a new freedom of expression never before attempted in my writing, whether journalism, conversational essays, or my fictions. As for my sinister reasons, only my own guilt makes them so.

That timid knock on my new door was indeed inconvenient. When it came, Irish Meg had, only moments before, mounted me and was riding to the finish like some wild-eyed, red-maned prancer in the Ascot Derby. You see, Meggy and all of her attractions were the sum of my dark motives for letting more spacious bohemian lodgings, and we had been together nearly eight months, since the Ashbee affair.

I had changed lodgings in early September so that she could become my private secretary. The Soho rooms consisted of two flats, a larger set of four rooms including a small kitchen, and a pair of smaller rooms across the hallway that Meg occupied. To public scrutiny, I was not keeping her; she was not living in my household. At first, I was a picture of guilt when, in September, we moved into this utterly transparent (it seemed to my prudish mind) love nest. In Soho, however — as Meg had predicted — no one paid us any attention. The landlord was ecstatic to have a gentleman tenant, and, over time, I grew accustomed to the idea of our licence.

Our domestic arrangements proved more than satisfactory. In return for her bed and board, Meggy had taken to learning secretarial skills. She handled my correspondence by slow dictation and even helped me in some of my researches. She had eagerly given off whoring — well, not completely, as at moments like this when she gloried in playing the whore. She took great pleasure in tweaking my gentleman's discomfiture at her outrageous behaviour and fanning the flames of my ungentlemanly desire. In my earlier memoir, I described Irish Meg Sheehey as "the fire-woman" upon first meeting her as she sat drinking gin before the hearth at Bow Street Station, her red hair blazing in the firelight. Since then, touching her fire had become as obsessive for me as was Ashbee's opium addiction or Dickens's attraction to his childlike Ellen. Irish Meg knew that I wanted her to continue to play the part of the whore for me (even though she had abandoned the role for others), and she played it to perfection. She had divined my voyeuristic appetites that night we were thrown together after the Queen's performance of our amateur play, Not So Bad As We Seem, at Devonshire House. That night, Dickens had dressed her in elegant clothes like an Irish lady to surprise me and to reward her. But after all the festivities were over, and the door of my bachelor rooms closed behind us, Meg slowly shed her royal guise and seized her whore's role once again. She spoke to me coarsely and provocatively as her satiny dress slid down her body to the floor, revealing her secret things. Meg saw in my eyes that night their joy in watching her undress, how they feasted upon her body while the rest of my being stood paralysed in her spell. All novelists must be voyeurs, elst how would they ever find the material of reality out of which to stitch the garment of their fiction?

I swear that Meg was like no other woman of our age. She revelled in exploring the depths of her sexual eccentricity. She insisted that love was to be made either in the flickering light of candles — "the romantick glow o' first love," she called it — or in the livid glow of blazing gaslamps — "wanton fucking," her term. "Myking luv, at's a gift for all the senses," she insisted that seductive night when I asked if she wished me to trim the lamps. "These Victorian 'lye-dees,' these respectable tarts oo' calls themselfes 'wives,' who turns all the lamps off an' won't drop their dresses 'til the whole nyebor'ood, inside an' outsyde, all the way ta the bloomin' river, is black as pitch, they only myke love ta the touch, tykes all the fun out o' bein' a 'ore, which they is no matter what's adornin' their finger.

"But rel love (an' wanton fuckin') is myde ta all the senses," she whispered. "Yew needs to taste an' smell an' touch an' 'ear an' especially see yer lover, look into yer lover's secret places, the seein' ... 'at's all the fun."

In those first idyllic months of our life together in that Soho retreat, Meggy insisted that our sex was an exploration, a journey into the senses. She was an explorer, like Stanley in Africa. No, rather like Burton and Speke questing for the source of the Nile among the mountains of the moon. Ah, the moon, age-old symbol of imagination! It controls sexuality just as it controls the tides. Irish Meg knew this well. "Yew wish ta watch me strip myself for yew, do yew not?" she would taunt me. "Yew wish ta see me touch and caress myself for yew, do yew not?" It is said that Burton always explored every inch of the bodies of his nubian concubines with a candle before enjoying them. Meggy, too, was an explorer into countries where my fellow Victorians feared to go. Ah, but I romanticise! Yet, as I get older and more realistic, and my age more rigid and utilitarian, that romanticism, whereby the imagination turns our mundane reality into myth, seems so much more real and necessary.

As Meg grew more comfortable in my rooms and in my bed, especially after the move to the Soho establishment, our lovemaking became a show that she would script, stage, and expertly perform. She insisted that I allow her to buy the finest lace, satin, and silk underthings, and she wore only black and red beneath her clothes. She would pose for me in her black silk stockings held up by a thin, lacy belt with pearl buttons, or in her red bone-corset audaciously laced between her overflowing breasts. She delighted in slowly removing her secret things, in unbuttoning, unlacing, sliding her silken underthings off her skin, rolling her stockings slowly up with her legs stretching into the air. With her stockings gartered to her waist, but with no underthings covering her Mount of Venus, she would perform the most extraordinary trick, which I found irresistible. Lying on her back on the bed with her legs tight together showing but a glimpse of her red nether ringlets, she would raise her legs straight up in the air from her waist until her toes pointed directly to the ceiling. As if opening the covers of a book, she would slowly open her legs to the sides and then, somehow, opening her legs even further, she would bend her knees back toward her breasts and wickedly smile. "'Tis all yers, Mister Collins, sir. Yew paid ta see it." Is it any wonder that I so quickly grew addicted to this book that she opened just for me?

Constantly she mocked my gentleman's reticence in the face of my goatish susceptibility to her temptations. She laughed at how easily seduced I was, how involuntarily the word "love" seemed to leap to my tongue while I delighted in listening to the streams of coarseness that flowed from hers. Even writing about this initiatory period of my life with such uncharacteristic licence from the distance of a full twenty years makes me feel like some dessicated old voyeur spying on the unsuspecting young as they play their fleshly games. But those young were us, long gone, Meg and I forever frozen in a kiss. Writing thus, even for such a brief space in something as harmless as a secret diary, helps me to understand how Henry Ashbee, still heated from his nighttime encounters, could turn straight to his manuscript, his so-called Memoirs of a Victorian Gentleman, and record in detail each fevered word, provocative gesture, and wanton movement of his night's conquest. In his twisted way, he was attempting to stave off death (or perhaps impotence). And now, life is indeed ironic, I am imitating him ... because I long to remember: Meg, my young self, and my first complete addiction to a woman.

"What is it Mister Collins wants?" Irish Meg would beckon from the bed as I stood barelegged in only my shirt at its foot. She lay on her back with her legs apart caressing herself. In the slow divesting of her "secret things" lurked the truth of the alluring possibilities beneath the surface of Victorian life.

"Is this what Mister Collins wants?" she would softly taunt as she continued to caress herself there.

"Does Mister Collins wish to kiss this?" she gently teased, opening herself with her fingers.

Then rolling, suddenly, over on her stomach and pushing up on her elbows to her knees to slowly rotate her full derrière, she would mock my voyeur's hesitance: "Or does Mister Collins want me here tonight?" She would laugh evilly.

Sometimes she would prowl the room like a sleek cat, stop in the firelight or candle glow and touch herself provocatively, offering, beckoning. Her "come hither" look as she stood in her secret things bit into me like a hook. She was a temptress out of myth, but not past myth. She was no whore of Babylon, no Circe or Cleopatra. It was as if she were a mythic figure from the future, some fire goddess from the next century transmigrated into this cold Victorian world to mock its hypocrisy.

It was the race she ran with me, and that race was galloping to its finish when that inconvenient knocking upon my door reined it in.

Odd, is it not? I sat down to recount the events of Dickens's and my second adventure with Inspector Field and now it is almost suppertime and I have only written about myself and Meg (and in ways that even I find shocking). This journal is reading like Sterne's Tristram Shandy. It began with a knocking upon my door and yet, a goodly number of pages later, that door still has not been opened.

But that knocking at my door, from twenty years in the past, which precipitated this chain of violent events, still echoes in my imagination as clearly as when it interrupted Meggy and me in flagrante delicto.

"Good God, who is that?" I disengaged from our passionate course.

"Wot the bloody 'ell!" Meg rolled off me more than a bit dismayed.

There was a scurrying to make ourselves presentable, and, for safety's sake, Meg stayed behind the bedroom door. I hurried to answer the now more insistent knocking.

When I opened the door, Scarlet Bess burst in as if impelled by demons. Her face bore the desperate look of frightened children and suicides. "Oh Mister Collins, oh pleese" — her hands clawed blindly at my shirt front — "'ees bin tyken up sir. 'Ee needs yew, sir. Oh pleese! Oh pleese 'elp me, 'elp 'im."

Her frantic pleas brought Meggy out of the bedroom. "Bess, wot's wrong? Wot is it, luv? Don't cry now. Wot is it?" Meg's voice was like a mother's calming her child, protective and loving. The woman's ability to move from one role to another with such facility and skill never ceased to amaze and amuse me. She was a consummate actress.

Strange that both Dickens and I were so hopelessly captivated by these actresses. I am convinced now that it was the uncertainty of them, the inability to possess a single woman but always being forced into the pursuit of many different women. His beloved Ellen and my Meggy exhibited protean powers, that slippery ability to change shape and elude one's grasp.

Is it not curious that this memoir is embarking very unlike the first? This second memoir seems to be developing as little more than a glorification of my own depravity. But our second adventure on duty with Inspector Field was not at all about myself and Irish Meg. Rather, it was about friendship and loyalty fighting betrayal and murder. That pull of friendship first asserted itself when Scarlet Bess burst into my rooms and Irish Meg so tenderly took her under her wing.

"Wot is it, Bessy?" Meg cajoled.

"Fieldsy 'as 'ad 'im tyken up for mordor, my Tally 'O," Bess sobbed within the protective circle of Meg's arms. "My Tally 'O's no mordoror. 'Ee's innersent. This tyme 'ee's innersent. 'Ee wos with me the 'ole night las' night, I sweer."

"I know. I know," Meg soothed, but her eyes met mine over her charge's shoulders and they were pleading for help. The next voice I heard was my own, though I had no sense of forming words or formulating coherent thoughts.

"Now let us not have any swearing just yet, Bess" — that distant voice inexplicably seemed rather calm and unhurried — "the whole world, especially Inspector Field, knows that you would swear to anything where Thompson is concerned."

"But Mister Collins, sir," she protested. "'Ee reelly wos with me las' night. 'Ee's innersent, I tells yew."

Our friend Tally Ho Thompson, former highwayman, housebreaker, pickpocket, whatever, was certainly far from "innersent" as she so quaintly put it, but that was my judgement upon his whole personality while Bess was clearly only referring to his hand in the violent events of the last twenty-four hours. "Now calm down and tell us what has happened, Bess," said my voice, which seemed to be functioning independently of my still somewhat rattled self, as I calmly led her to a chair.

"It's Fieldsy," Bess insisted, "jus' 'cause they found 'im neer 'er, 'ee thinks 'ee did it ... an ... an Fieldsy's 'ad 'im thrown in Newgate."

It had been almost eight months since our first collaboration with Inspector Field, but Dickens and I had not neglected our detective friend. We had visited Bow Street Station a number of times in the course of our evening ambulations, but it had been well over a month since we had last seen Field. Dickens had spent most of the holidays working on the first number of Bleak House, frolicking with his family and conducting the typically elaborate Christmas festivities in their home, Tavistock House. The great hall of that new manse was hung so thickly with Christmas greens that Forster remarked in his usual dour way that it looked more like Sherwood Forest than Christ's birthplace. I also had been much involved in my first holiday celebration in my new lodgings ... with Irish Meg. The last time we had seen Field had been in November when we had accompanied him and Rogers to an inquest in Cook's Court just off Chancery Lane. One night while sitting before the hearth in the bullpen at Bow Street, Field had mentioned that the inquiry into a mysterious death was to be held the next day. Dickens had leapt at the opportunity to attend, which the next morning we did. To me, it had all seemed a horrible waste of time — an obscure scrivener addicted to opium had died of an apparent miscalculation in his dosage — but when the second number of Bleak House appeared containing the Nemo section and the subsequent "inkwich," it was all there, word for word, street urchin for street urchin, beadle for beadle, and deceased for deceased.

Out of Bess's hysterical sobbing, Meg managed to extract the sequence of events that had precipitated her knocking upon our door. The murder of a woman had been discovered, and Bess's lover, Tally Ho Thompson, who was acting the role of Poins in the new production of Shakespeare's Henry IV, had been taken up for the crime.

It was a splendid production with horses riding on- and offstage, and Thompson had proven just their man. Macready had retired from acting after his last performance in Macbeth, but he had stayed on in his position as director of the Covent Garden Theatre, and Thompson (probably due to the association with Dickens) had, from the beginning, been a favourite of Macready. Not only did Tally Ho Thompson act the riding and duelling and fighting parts onstage, not only did he possess a marvellous name to grace the programs, but he took care of the horses as well. He had proven himself invaluable to the company, and the resulting steady employment at good wages had allowed him and Scarlet Bess (who, like Meg, was now off the streets) to take modest accommodations in Seven Dials.

"My Tally 'O could never mordor no poor girl like yew nor me," Bess, on the verge of fainting, wailed. "Yew's got to 'elp us, Mister Collins. Yew an Mister Dickens, yew could talk to 'im, tell 'im my Tally 'O could niver mordor no poor girl."

Meg, cradling the poor girl in her arms, looked up at me, and I realized I had no choice in the matter. Little did I know how much more complicated than Bess's sketchy version the matter truly was. Nor did I realise just how inconvenient that knock on my door was.


Excerpted from "The Highwayman and Mr. Dickens"
by .
Copyright © 1992 William J. Palmer.
Excerpted by permission of Diversion Publishing Corp..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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