Charles Dickens was a mesmerist, illusionist and master of sleight of hand. In private he performed conjuring tricks, such as pouring dried fruit, eggs and flour into a top hat and pulling out a steaming Christmas pudding. In public, he performed scenes from his novels, his party-piece being the murder of Nancy in Oliver Twist: audiences sat spellbound as, sweat coursing down his forehead, he bludgeoned the girl, again and again, to death.
His showmanship, John Mullan argues in this excellent book, applies equally to his fiction, where Dickens used the “impudent trickery” he brought to the stage to make ’em laugh, make ’em cry and make ’em wait on the page.
Mullan begins with a startling question: “What is so good about Dickens’s novels?” It is worth asking, he continues, because critics tend to discuss Dickens as an entertainer rather than a writer, as though by examining his sentences the magic might wear off. But the closer we look, the better the novels get. The Artful Dickens is both an exposure of the trickster’s methods and a celebration of close reading.