Introduction: "Not a Common Officer"

The frontispiece of the Argosy, Vol. VII (1869), one of only a few illustrations in the periodical, plunges the reader straight into the sensational sub-plot of Mrs Henry Wood's new serial, Roland Yorke, which ran in monthly instalments throughout this year. The new work was written as a sequel to Wood's popular The Channings (1862), in which she contrasts two very differently brought-up sets of siblings: the virtuous Channings and the unprincipled Yorkes. As the title of the sequel indicates, the focus is now on the second of the Yorke boys, the totally irrepressible Roland, and it shows him making good after having stolen a cheque in the earlier novel. He has just returned from Africa, where he learnt some hard lessons; instead of making his fortune there with his consignment of frying pans (a typically hare-brained project), he had once been reduced to selling hot potatoes in the streets. But, from start to finish, the sub-plot, in which Roland is only marginally involved, provides the main interest of the narrative.

This sub-plot concerns John Ollivera, an up-and-coming young barrister who is shot through the heart while in temporary lodgings at Mrs Jones's house in Helstonleigh. In the absence of any other explanation for his death, the coroner has returned a verdict of suicide, and Ollivera has been buried accordingly — at night, and without ceremony. Unable to accept such a verdict, his curate brother has returned to the grave. The illustration (right)* shows him defiantly reading out the burial service over it in a hastily borrowed, ill-fitting surplice, supported by his cousin Frank Greatorex (youngest brother of the city lawyer Bede Greatorex), his friend Arthur Channing, his brother's fellow-barrister Mr Kene, and one or two others. The solemn little group is spied on, from behind a headstone, by the creepy, crouching figure of the detective, Jonas Butterby. The caption for the Argosy frontispiece, which is not found word for word in the text itself, runs: "They stood in the midnight air with bowed heads. The light fell on the clergyman's book and he proceeded to read the burial service. Butterby, the detective, stood hidden behind a tombstone."

The scene is a disturbing one, but Wood's readers would not have been surprised by that. The author was well established by now, and her novels commonly involved crimes and trials, and featured police officers, detectives and lawyers. Butterby's ambivalent image too is conventional enough for the times. The legal profession was an old fixture, but in the mid-Victorian period a professional police network was relatively recent. Richard Hare in East Lynne (1861) still remembers "the Bow-street officers ... a term which had been familiar to his boyish years" (350). Earlier on, when visiting Archibald Carlyle in his office, Richard had happened to say, "How the place has altered! There's a new brick house on the corner where old Morgan's shop used to stand." Carlyle had responded, "That's the new police station" (265). So these were early days for the profession. Policemen were still low in the social hierarchy. In Wood's A Life's Secret (serialised in 1862), Peter Quale, "one of the higher artisans of the Messrs. Hunters' yard" (53), reminds the disaffected builders that they earn a decent salary of thirty-three shillings a week in comparison with farm labourers and others — including policemen: "Look at a policeman, with his pound [only twenty shillings] a week" (160). Sergeant Delves in Mrs Halliburton's Troubles (1862) also looks unprepossessing: he is described as "a portly man, with a padded breast and a red face, who, in his official costume, always looked as if he were choking" (231).

As for detectives, these were an even newer and more questionable class of people. The Bow Street officers had done some detective work, of course, but not very efficiently: Dickens gives the pair in Oliver Twist (1838) the demeaning names of Blathers and Duff. Called in like the local constable to investigate the break-in at Mrs Maylie's, they are easily plied with drink, and fobbed off by the doctor's insistence that Oliver was not mixed up in the affair. When Dickens was writing this novel, a separate detective force did not even exist: it was formed only in 1842, and it was just a small one at first (see Petrow 54). A decade later, Inspector Bucket in the same author's Bleak House (1853) is a great advance on Blathers and Duff. But even he, with his stalking and spying and intense puzzling (as he rubs his face with his pudgy index finger), is rather a comic figure. According to social historians, these investigators were originally "regarded with ambivalence if not outright contempt," since their methods seemed "unEnglish" and evoked images of espionage and agent provocateurs that offended English sensibilities" (Wilson and Finnane 136). In the 1860s, therefore, when Wood was writing, detectives were still a novelty, and looked at askance.

This uncertainty is reflected in the way Wood introduces Butterby when he first appears, in plain clothes, in The Channings:

Mr. Butterby puzzled Helstonleigh. He was not an inspector, he was not a sergeant, he was not a common officer, and he was never seen in official dress. Who was Mr. Butterby? Helstonleigh wondered. That he had a great deal to do with the police, was one of their staff, and received his pay, was certain; but, what his standing might be, and what his peculiar line of duty, they could not tell.... For convenience-sake we will call him a detective; remembering, however, that we have no authority for the term. [158]

In this earlier novel, he has been summoned to investigate the stolen cheque in the proctor's office, and ostentatiously displays his forensic skills by poking and peering at the envelope which should have contained the cheque, examining it minutely through a special little glass, and even sniffing it. But he does not acquit himself well thereafter. He immediately suspects Arthur Channing, then one of the proctor's articled clerks. Worse, he brings the case in front of the magistrate on his own authority. The proctor, an old friend of Arthur's father, has to step in to abort it. The real culprit is, of course, Roland, the more senior articled clerk in the office. But Butterby is not the one to reveal this. Roland himself confesses it in a letter, after having set off to Africa. Quite apart from settling on the wrong person, then, Butterby had exceeded his authority, and failed to expose the thief. Hamish Channing's verdict on him is simply, "Confounded old meddler!" (191).

In the sequel, Butterby is re-introduced as "a middle-sized, spare man, with a pale face, deeply sunk green eyes, that had a habit of looking steadily at people, and a small, sharp, tumed-up nose. Silent by nature and by habit, he imparted the idea of possessing a vast amount of astute keenness as a detector of crime: in his own opinion he had not in that respect an equal" (5). The sly hint of unwarranted self-importance here ("in his own opinion") suggests that his earlier failure has not been forgotten; and his actual position is still in doubt: "He was not a sergeant of police; he was not an inspector; people did not know what he was." Nevertheless, he "held sway at the police-station, and was a very frequent visitor to it," and seems to have become a fixture in Helstonleigh. "When any one wanted important assistance, he could, if he chose, apply to Mr Butterby, instead of to the regular inspector" (47). From his appearance in the two opening illustrations of the new leading serial, it is clear that he is often going to be found lurking in its pages.

Butterby Interviews Alletha Rye

One of Butterby's first steps in investigating John Ollivera's death in Roland Yorke is to call at the house where he died. The second illustration in the Argosy (Vol. VII, p.100 in the periodical) shows him inveigling his way into the boarding house above Mr Jones's shop with a little bunch of flowers: "Knowing you liked violets, Mrs. Jones, I thought I'd just call in with them," he says ingratiatingly in the text (57). This paves the way for his interrogation of her unmarried sister Alletha Rye, who lives with her. He is rightly intrigued by the fact that Alletha had publicly insisted, at the graveside, that the young man would never have killed himself. Butterby's interview shows his skill at interrogating suspects, probably his strongest point, but it also reveals his shortcomings:

Mr. Butterby had gradually edged his chair forward on the hearthrug, so as to obtain a side view of Miss Rye's face. Perhaps he was surprised, perhaps not, to see it suddenly flush, and then become deadly pale.

"Just look here. Miss Rye. If he did not do it, somebody else did. And I should like to glean a little insight as to whether or not there are grounds for that new light, if there's any to be gleaned."

"Why, what on earth! are you taking up that crotchet, Butterby?"

The interruption came from Mrs. Jones. That goes without saying, as the French say. Mr. Butterby turned to warm his hands at the blaze, speaking mildly enough to disarm an enemy.

"Not I. I should like to show your sister that her suspicions are wrong: or she'll worry herself into a skeleton. See here: whatever happened, and however it happened, it must have been between half-past seven and eight. You were in the place part of that half-hour, Miss Rye, and heard nobody."

"I have already said so."

"Shut up in your room at the top of the house; looking for — what was it? — a parcel?"

"A pattern — the pattern of a sleeve. But I had to open parcels, for I could not find it, and stayed searching. It had slipped between one drawer and another at the back."

"It must have taken you some time," remarked Mr. Butterby, keeping his face on the genial fire and his eyes on Miss Rye.

"I suppose it did. Susan says I was upstairs a quarter-of-an- hour, but I don't think it was so long as that. Eight o'clock struck after I got back to Mrs. Wilson's."

>Mr. Butterby paused. Miss Rye resumed after a minute.

"I don't think any one could have come in legitimately Without my hearing them on the stairs. My room is not at the top of the house, it is on the same floor as Mrs. Jones's; the back-room, immediately over the bedroom that was occupied by Mr. Ollivera. My door was open, and the drawers in which I was searching stood close to it. If any —

"What d'ye mean by legitimately?" interrupted Mr. Butterby, turning to take a full look at the speaker.

"Openly; with the noise one usually makes in coming up- stairs. But if any one crept up secretly, of course I should not have heard it. Susan persists in declaring she never lost sight of the front door at all; I don't believe her."

"Nobody does believe her," snapped Mrs. Jones, with a fling at the socks." She confesses now that she ran in twice or thrice to look at the fires."

"Oh! she does, does she," cried Mr. Butterby. "Leaving the door open, I suppose?"

"Leaving it to take care of itself. She says she shut it; I say I know she didn't. Put it at the best, it was not fastened; and anybody might have opened it and walked in that had a mind to, and robbed the house."

The visitor, sitting so unobtrusively by the fire, thought he discerned a little glimmer of light breaking in upon the utter darkness.

"But, as the house was not robbed, we must conclude nobody did come in," he observed. "As to the verdict — I don't yet see any reason for Miss Rye's disputing it. Mr. Ollivera was a favourite, I suppose."

The remark did not please Miss Rye. Her cheek flushed, her work fell, and she rose from her seat to turn on Mr. Butterby.

"The verdict was a wrong verdict. Mr. Ollivera was a good and brave and just man. Never a better went out of the world."

"If I don't believe you were in love with him!" cried Mr. Butterby.

"Perhaps I was," came the unexpected answer; but the speaker seemed to be in too much agitation greatly to heed what she said. "It would not have hurt either him or me."

Gathering her work, cotton, and scissors in her hand, she went out of the room. (58-60)

This is a typical performance by Butterby. He acts like a hound on the scent, and is not put off by Mrs Jones's interruptions. While keeping up a pleasant front ("speaking mildly enough to disarm an enemy"), he questions the younger woman sharply and relentlessly ("looking for — what was it? — a parcel?"), watching her keenly for her body language, whilst pretending not to ("keeping his face on the genial fire and his eyes on Miss Rye"). At last he forces a sort of confession from her, and she hurries from the room, evidently upset. Her confession is not one of murder, but of (perhaps) feeling, raising the possibility of a crime of passion. Butterby does, therefore, successfully elicit some information, rattle his interviewee, and create a dramatic scene. It is quite entertaining. One outcome of his interrogation is useful, too: the possibility of an intruder is raised and dismissed, not so much because of lack of opportunity, as because there was no robbery.

All the same, Butterby is remiss. He seems already to have made up his mind about Alletha, and jumps to a wrong conclusion: "If I don't believe you were in love with him!" Thus he pushes the innocent Alletha into implicating herself. Later on, she goes further, "confesses," and is taken into custody. In fact, she is screening someone else, the man whom she really loves, and whom she fears was involved in the murder. More by luck than intelligence, Butterby will succeed in finding out the object of her affections, who is now working in Bede Greatorex's office under an assumed name — as elsewhere, Wood makes full use of false names and disguises. But the detective continues to focus on Alletha, instead of on the last person to see Ollivera alive.... It is left to this man himself, Bede Greatorex, Ollivera's cousin but also his rival in love, to explain exactly how and why the crime was committed.

Butterby's Role

The fictional detective can be seen in two ways, either as standing in for the author in the text, or as the author's rival "in the contest for storytelling supremacy" (Thoms 70). Either way, he should be moving the narrative forward towards the final revelation; and, either way, Butterby falls short, just as he does in The Channings. The contemporary Times reviewer found the ending of the novel particularly unsatisfactory: "if we were told that Mr Ollivera was murdered by any one of six or seven persons other than the man who, as it happens, is chosen to do the deed, we would not feel a whit more surprised" ("A Batch of Novels").

The eponymous hero is equally unimpressed. Roland, who has just come into his inheritance and purchased a goose, bumps into the detective in Helstonleigh in the penultimate chapter. Full of his own elevation in life, he addresses Butterby gleefully:

I say, Butterby, that was a mistake of yours, that was — taking her into custody as the one who killed John Ollivera."

"Ay," carelessly returned Mr. Butterby, with an expressive sniff. "The best of us go in for mistakes, you know."

"I suppose you can't help it, just as some people can't help dreaming," observed Roland, with native politeness. "I went up and saw his grave yesterday. I say, shall you ever pitch upon the right one?"

Butterby does know by now, but says nothing. "Take it from first to last," he admits, "it has been about the queerest case that ever fell under mortal skill; and we are content for the future to let it alone." (451-52)

Butterby has not been able to arrive at the culprit "by logical deductions," as required under rules later formulated for detective fiction (Wright 2481). But he goes some way towards excusing himself. Ignoring Roland's emphatic and condescending "you can't help it," he stresses the intractability of the case, and points out that "the best of us go in for mistakes, you know." The careful reader will spot a touch of Wood's typically domestic humour here. The younger man's first mistake was, of course, his youthful theft. But Roland has made up for that now; his rehabilitation is complete. Butterby refers instead to a more recent, and much more venial mistake. The goose Roland has just purchased in the market is, in fact, a stringy old gander. The detective catches a whiff of the bad bargain (hence the "expressive sniff") but keeps his counsel, both about the foolish purchase and about what he has finally come to know about Ollivera's death. Butterby goes on his way, clearly the wiser, the more perceptive and immeasurably the more discreet of the two men.

Mrs Wood and the Detective Novel

The frontispiece of Volume VIII of The Argosy shows Bede Greatorex on the Thames Embankment torturing himself with thoughts of the selfish, merecenary and extravagant wife who has been his downfall, but whom he till loves. Apparently with her in mind, he is plagued by fears that his cousin's true murderer will eventually be discovered:

A line of light illumined the sky in the west where the sultry sun had gone down in heat; and as Bede looked towards it and thought of the All-seeing Eye that lay beyond that light, he felt how fruitless it was for him to plot and plan, and to say this shall be or this shall not be. The course of the future rested in the hands of one Divine Ruler, and his own poor, short-sighted will was powerless to alter the Divine decrees. [250]

In Wood's highly moral universe, there is no need, really, for a detective to solve the case by himself. The culprit is already known to God.

Nevertheless, the reader must be acquainted with the full facts of the case, and the narrative does not end with Bede's musings, or even with Roland's later encounter with Butterby. Some uncertainty remains: could Bede possibly have done the dastardly deed himself, or might he be shielding his wife? A concluding chapter gives all the missing details, in the form of Mrs Greatorex's memories, and a copy of her husband's letter to Mr (now Judge) Kene. Wood resorts to such unforced revelations elsewhere, for example, winding up both The Channings and Mrs Halliburton's Troubles with the culprits' own confessions. Most likely, she simply did not see the need for laying a trail of clues that would obviate the need for self-disclosure. The sensation novel was a mixed genre, as Patrick Brantlinger has pointed out, one that is "midway between romanticism and realism, Gothic 'mysteries' and modern mysteries, and popular and high culture forms" (3). In respect of its detective interest, it is also midway between Edgar Allan Poe's Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841) and what Michael Cox calls "the true tale of detection as created by Conan Doyle" (Cox xv). In short, Wood's novels, like those of Dickens, Collins, and Mary Braddon, can be seen as part of the evolution of the detective novel, but cannot themselves be properly categorised as such.

The shift towards pure, logical ratiocination was a gradual one. Its social, as against literary, background was the development and renaming of the detective branch of the police force, which in 1878 finally became known as the Criminal Investigation Department, or CID (Petrow 54). Literary detection, with its emphasis on the detective-hero's deductive ability, soon came into its own as a distinct genre. Gradually, certain general conventions were established, such as those famously listed by Willard Wright in his "Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories" of 1928. The "true tale of detection" was now seen as a sort of challenge, in which the reader pits his wits against the detective, and fair play has to be observed in the sharing of salient facts. The discovery of the culprit becomes a goal that the detective is almost certain to reach first — though it is worth pointing out that even late nineteenth-century detective fiction resorts to direct revelations sometimes, in order to "confirm the often seemingly arbitrary findings of the detective's investigation" (Pittard 18).

Much as Wood wanted to engage her readers, her primary aim was different: not just to puzzle or challenge them, or even just to give them the satisfaction of an unexpected solution, but to convey her own belief in "the inevitable Divine law that as a man sows so he must reap: the certainty of retribution" (Charles Wood 248). Most detective fiction suggests this in the end, but for Wood it underlies the whole project. Nevertheless, this quintessentially mid-Victorian novelist created at least some of the elements that would distinguish the great detectives of the golden age of crime fiction — including that of skilful interrogation.

*The signature on the Argosy illustrations is most probably that of subject painter Tom Gray, who was contributing stylistically similar illustrations to various periodicals at this time. Many thanks to our own Simon Cooke for this information. Gray's compositions are not distinguished, but suitably atmospheric. The first two seem to confirm Wood's ambivalent attitude towards her detective.

Related Material


"A Batch Of Novels." The Times. 15 Deecember 1869: 4. Times Digitl Archive. Web. 15 December 2013.

The Argosy, Volume VII, January-June 1869. [Contains opening of Roland Yorke.] Google Books (free ebook).

The Argosy, Volume VIII, July-December 1869. [Contains second half of Roland Yorke.] Google Books (free ebook).

Brantlinger, Patrick. "What Is 'Sensational' About the "Sensation Novel"? Nineteenth-Century Fiction. Vol. 37, No. 1 (June 1982): 1-28. Accessed via Jstor. Web. 15 December 2013.

Cox, Michael. Introduction. Victorian Detective Stories. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992. ix-xxiv. Print.

Petrow, Stefan. Policing Morals: The Metropolitan Police and the Home Office, 1870-1914. Oxford: Clarendon, 1994. Print.

Pittard, Christopher. Purity and Contamination in Late Victorian Detective Fiction. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2011. Print.

Thoms, Peter. Detection & Its Designs: Narrative & Power in Nineteenth-Century Detective Fiction. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1998. Print.

Wilson, Dean, and Mark Finnane. "From Sleuths to Technicians? Changing Images of the Detective in Victoria." In Police Detectives in History, 1750-1950. Eds. Clive Emsley and Haia Shpayer-Makov. 135-156. Print.

Wood, Charles W. Memorials of Mrs Henry Wood. London: Richard Bentley, 1894. Internet Archive. Web. 15 December 2013.

Wood, Mrs Henry. The Channings. London: Richard Bentley, 1881. Internet Archive. Web. 15 December 2013.

_____. East Lynne. Ed. Elizabeth Jay. Oxford: Oxford University Press (Oxford World's Classics), 2005. Print.

_____. A Life's Secret: A Story. London and New York: Macmillan, 1904. Internet Archive. Web. 15 December 2013.

_____. Mrs Halliburton's Troubles. London: Richard Bentley, 1890. Internet Archive. Web. 15 December 2013.

_____. Roland Yorke: A Sequel to The Channings. London: Macmillan, 1904. Internet Archive. Web. 15 December 2013.

Wright, Willard Huntingdon. "Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories." In 12 Classic Mystery Novels. By S. S.Van Dine (Wright's pen name). Wildside Press LLC. (, Ebook). 2481-86.

Last modified 17 December 2013