The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

Tom Fox; or, The Revelations of a Detective (1860)

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

Tom Fox; or, The Revelations of a Detective was written by “Tom Fox,” the pseudonym of John Bennett (1816-1894), a London publisher of small books and magazines and a minor writer of popular fiction. Bennett wrote what was called “curb literature,” fiction aimed at the working class. Some of Bennett’s novels were racy by Victorian standards.

Tom Fox is a police detective. His stories are purportedly biographical and written by a real detective, which was a common enough claim in the story papers and dime novels. Fox works in London but ventures outside of the city when a case calls for it. He has been doing the job for a number of years; his own statements vary the number from fifteen to twenty years. He was born in Houndsditch, a borough on the eastern fringe of London which, during the Victorian years, was the Jewish quarter of the city, but he is not Jewish. In his own words, “let him not wrongly infer that therefore I was a son of Moses. The only thing Jewish about me was my cunning and my love of ‘de monish.’” (This is, unfortunately, the first but not the last moment of antisemitism in Tom Fox). When he was young he was a “’cute lad,” loving gambling and drink, watching much and saying little. But eventually he grew up and went right, joining the force and becoming a detective. Fox makes the distinction between being a “peeler,” a street cop, and a detective. Being a detective requires attributes that the average street cop lacks: education, ingenuity, and the ability to adopt disguises and play characters, all things which, in Fox's view, the average street policeman does not have but which Fox has in abundance. Because he is a detective, he does not have to walk a beat, but rather can be more selective in the cases he takes. Like many of the other Victorian detectives, Fox does not seem to get much of a salary for his work and instead survives on the rewards for the criminals which he catches. Adding to his income are the tips he accepts from individuals to “quicken my ingenuity” and the commissions he receives from clients to trace individuals and solve particular crimes.

As a detective he is basic. He is a “night hawk,” getting up at four in the afternoon and conducting his investigations at night. Usually he assumes a persona, crafts a disguise to match, and then lives among the criminal class, in the areas of the city where the criminals live, and gets to know them that way. Inevitably he finds his man through tips and favors from other criminals, who think that he, in disguise, is one of them. He questions suspects and sometimes examines crime scenes. He also traces stolen money by its serial numbers. He sketches criminals in his spare time, to better study and recognize the physiognomies of bad men and women. And many of the criminals he deals with are stupid, which helps him. The criminals are varied, ranging from simple murderers to burglars to seducers (men who woo women, have sex with them, and then discard them) to mothers who murder their children.

But it is as a character that Tom Fox really stands out. More than any other Victorian detective Fox is conscious of class and sex, and of the roles they play in crime. He tells the story of how he was once reprimanded from the bench for begging for clemency for a child thief who had stolen bread because he was hungry. Fox vowed never to do it again, and didn't, but 

I do not hesitate to affirm, after a twenty years' experience of criminal life, my conviction is that half the crimes may be referred to intemperance--a fourth to poverty--and another fourth to gambling and living beyond the means. 

Some of his stories pointedly tie poverty to thievery, especially among children, and he does what he can to give street children better prospects, and he is happy when they have happy endings. But Fox's class consciousness is small compared to his awareness of the ways in which men victimize women, and his sympathy for the victims. Fox is remarkable in the attention he pays to women. He has far more sympathy for burglars than for seducers; he describes seducers as “men who lived for nothing but evil” and “the worst specimens of mankind.” Fox makes a point of describing how upper-class men prey on lower class women. He moralizes about how immoral it is for women to shamelessly walk the streets, but Fox is far more condemnatory of the men who forced them there. Speaking of prostitution, he says:

The causes that conspire to the spread and augmentation of the Social Evil are very many; but it is my firm belief that its chief supply is from the necessitous amongst women from the over-worked and under-paid. Starvation would try the virtue of the most virtuous. Fourteen hours a day of labour in a crowded gas lit room; this multiplied by six brings it to 84 hours toil for FOUR SHILLINGS!...Indignation! reserve it for their employers, the bull-necked Jew and the sleek Gentile–keepers of ‘Monster Marts’ and other swindling dodges–who have more compassion for the horses they maintain out of this inhuman slavery than for the slaves themselves.

Perhaps Bennett wrote his stories as part of the “improving literature” trend, but it has the sting of realism.

Tom Fox is quite unlike the detective stories aimed at the middle and upper classes. There is a world of distance from the stories of George Sims’ Dorcas Dene, Detective to Tom Fox. Tom Fox is frank and (for the era) racy, often portraying seducers and fallen women. Bennett actually uses the word “prostitute” to describe streetwalkers, and while he is not the first in British literature to use that term it was by no means common in detective fiction in 1860. Some of the stories are almost entirely narrations of other people's stories, rather than Fox describing what he did to solve a case. There is some antisemitism, and there is also a strain of anti-French sentiment; Fox works among immigrants and clearly does not think much of them. Tom Fox is a casebook collection, a proto-police procedural which is detail-oriented and vivid creation of the daily life of a detective. Finally, Tom Fox has a large number of line drawings, supposedly drawn by Tom Fox himself, of the men and women he deals with. While the drawings of Jews are antisemitic, many of the other drawings give a nice glimpse into the street life Fox describes. The drawings are caricatures and even cartoonish, but still entertain, not unlike Tom Fox itself.

Recommended Edition

Print: Tom Fox, Tom Fox, or the Revelations of a Detective. London: George Vickers, 1861.