Poisoning, hypnotists, kidnappers and a series of crimes "in their nature and execution too horrible to contemplate": The Notting Hill Mystery by Charles Felix, believed to be the first detective novel ever published, is back in print for the first time in a century-and-a-half.
Although Wilkie Collins's The Moonstone, published in 1868, and Emile Gaboriau's first Monsieur Lecoq novel L'Affaire Lerouge, released in 1866, have both been proposed as the first fictional outings for detectives, the British Library believes The Notting Hill Mystery "can truly claim to be the first modern detective novel".
Serialised between 1862 and 1863 in the magazine Once a Week, the novel was published in its entirety in 1863 but has been out of print since the turn of the century. It stars the insurance investigator Ralph Henderson, as he works to bring the sinister Baron "R___" to justice for murdering his wife to obtain a large life insurance payout. Using diary entries, letters, crime reports, witness interviews, maps and forensic evidence – "innovative techniques that would not become common features of detective fiction until the 1920s", says the British Library – Henderson's investigation slowly plays itself out, uncovering along the way an evil mesmerist, a girl kidnapped by gypsies, poisoners and three murders.
"Is that chain one of purely accidental coincidence, or does it point with terrible certainty to a series of crimes, in their nature and execution too horrible to contemplate?" asks the author Felix, a pseudonym for the journalist, traveller and lawyer Charles Warren Adams. The story's reception at the time was positive: the Guardian called it "very ingeniously put together", the Evening Herald said that "the book in its own line stands alone", while the London Review appears to be getting to grips with what a detective story actually is, describing The Notting Hill Mystery as "a carefully prepared chaos, in which the reader, as in the game called solitaire, is compelled to pick out his own way to the elucidation of the proposed puzzle".
The author Julian Symons identified The Notting Hill Mystery as the first detective novel in 1972, calling its primacy "unquestionable" and its plot "strikingly modern". The British Library first made the novel available via print-on-demand last March, as part of a collection of hundreds of 19th century novels. While most sold just two to three copies apiece, The Notting Hill Mystery took off following a glowing write-up in the New York Times which identified Adams as its author and described its ending as both "ingenious and utterly mad", selling hundreds of copies and prompting the library to issue its new trade edition this month.
"It's a great read, written in a very matter-of-fact way – as Paul Collins describes it in the New York Times, it's both utterly of its time and utterly ahead of it," said commissioning editor Lara Speicher. "At the beginning of the book you know what the crime is, then he gradually leads you through all the events leading up to the crime, and only at the end reveals how it happened. He keeps you going through the book. Modern fans of crime fiction would definitely enjoy it."
The British Library's new edition has been produced using photographs of the original 1863 edition, which featured illustrations by George du Maurier, grandfather of Daphne.
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