1812 — Birthdate of Charles Dickens, author of Great Expectations and Bleak House
Detective Phillips jostles the work desk in the empty apartment. The missing woman is a college professor and literary scholar, and her computer should provide clues about how to find her.
The screensaver deactivates, revealing a dense paragraph of text. You join him, reading over his shoulder:
Of all the deaths in Dickens [the scholar had typed], the gruesome disposal of Krook in Bleak House is at once the most infamous, the most ridiculous, and the most Dickensian. In Chapter 32, speaking to another gentleman in the building where Krook serves as landlord, William Guppy absently sets his hand on the windowsill, and recoils: “ ‘What, in the devil’s name,’ he says, ‘is this! Look at my fingers!’ ” Dickens goes on to explain that “A thick, yellow liquor defiles them, which is offensive to the touch and sight and more offensive to the smell” and “that makes them both shudder” (32). When the men go downstairs to Krook’s apparently empty apartment, they find soot and oil and a burning smell: “Here is a small burnt patch of flooring…and here is — is it the cinder of a small charred and broken log of wood sprinkled with white ashes, or is it coal? Oh, horror, he IS here!” The visitors have actually discovered Krook’s remains. The book attributes his death to “spontaneous combustion, and none other of all the deaths that can be died” (32). Challenged by critics during the initial serialized publication of the novel, Dickens actually defended the scientific plausibility of Krook’s death, later remarking that “before I wrote that description I took pains to investigate the subject” (Preface). A stronger argument would have referenced symbolic rather than scientific accuracy: the aptly named Krook implodes from within, a victim of his own inner corruption. Instead, by referencing “about thirty cases on record” of so-called spontaneous combustion, Dickens perpetuated a scientific inaccuracy that actually undermined his fictional work — not to mention raised the threat of public hysteria. If one man could explode at a random moment, what’s to prevent others from suffering a similar fate? What trigger might —
You reach the bottom of the onscreen text, and wait for Det. Phillips to roll the scroll wheel on the mouse, or press the “page down” button.
Phillips is a slow reader. You reach for the mouse, hoping to hurry him up a bit.
A thick yellow liquid clogs the scroll wheel. The professor must have spilled honey over the mouse. You touch it gently with a gloved finger, and the substance sticks to the rubber tip.
You hold the glove beneath your nose. The honey has gone stale — no longer sweet, but with the smell of burnt, fatty oil.
The odor previously confronted you when you entered the empty apartment. Since the professor has been missing for eight days, you’d attributed the smell to neglected laundry, garbage, food.
A similar thick yellow substance covers sections of the desk and the computer keypad. There’s no emptied, overturned honey jar nearby.
You lean closer to look, bumping against the swivel desk chair. A thick clump of ash falls off the cushioned seat. Beneath the desk, your toe stubs against a large, burnt log, breaking it into pieces.
“Phillips, I’m beginning to think…” The words trail off in your throat, because when you turn to your partner, you notice waves of smoke rising from beneath the collar of his uniform. More smoke rises from his sleeves, trailing from the ends of his hands.
With a puff and a flash, Detective Phillips spontaneously combusts.