Charles Dickens is probably best known for A Christmas Carol (reviewed by Cheryl M-M here) and several other prolific works including Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations and a great many more serials, short stories, novellas and novels.
Hunted Down is a detective story, and generally not considered one of Dickens’ better works. That doesn’t mean it’s not an entertaining read. Dickens on his worst day is still far better than your average hack.
In most detective stories, you’re expected to read between the lines, to look beyond the clues to try to figure out “who dunnit”. Also most detective stories are told in a narrative way. The reader listens to the narrator’s story and pick certain clues out in order to try to figure out either the perpetrator, the motive, the method, the twist, or any combination thereof. The reader wants to out-detective the detective, and this requires that the reader have a certain amount of trust in what the narrator is telling them.
This is one thing that I felt didn’t work well about this story. We never really feel we can trust the narrator to be giving us the straight goods. Without that trust, you can never really go anywhere with your own sleuthing as you read. The reader is just along for the ride, reading until the narrator decides to tell you what happened.
Another thing that I felt wasn’t up to Dickens’ usual quality was the name he chose for his suspect. Julius Slinkton, although the narrator refers to him mostly as just “Mr. Slinkton”. It takes little imagination to come up with a name that wouldn’t arouse suspicion in the reader. Bob Massey. Shannon Daniels. Rodney Howard. Ashton Gregory. Clement Rice. Scott Patterson. See? Not hard. “Slinkton” sounds obvious. It sounds cartoonish. He might as well have named him “Nasty McBadguy”. If you want to make it clear to the reader that he’s the suspect that’s one thing, but you can do that equally well without the cartoonish name.
Julius Slinkton is suspected by the detective of being a serial poisoner. People around him just have a way of getting ill and dying. Through interviews and detective work, the narrator builds a case against Slinkton, but the detective is unknowingly working against the clock. Suspicious of the detective’s intense interest in him, Slinkton has one more life to take and if he succeeds, the detective’s work will be for nought.
Written in the middle of the Victorian era, this story provides us with a small slice of Victorian culture. This does lead to a very “prim and proper” air to a lot of the character interactions, but also produces a very descriptive narrative and dramatic intensity that provides most of the meat of the story.
The story gets off to a bit of a slow start, but builds to a satisfying conclusion in spite of its faults. I quite enjoyed it.
Originally published in the New York Ledger in 1859, Hunted Down is in the public domain. The story takes about 45-50 minutes depending on your reading speed.
Download the story at Feedbooks
Listen to the story read aloud by SGA at Librivox (58 minutes)