Created by Charles Felix
Pseudonym of Charles Warren Adams
— Victorian P.I. Ralph Henderson gets all noir on us
Forget The Moonstone (1868) by Wilkie Collins.
Forget L’Affaire Lerouge (1886) featuring our old pal Monsieur Lecoq.
Arguably the first detective novel–and it’s a private detective novel to boot–is The Notting Hill Mystery, first serialized in 1862 in the pages of Once a Week, a mid-nineteenth century English magazine, and then as a single volume novel in 1863.
Crime fiction scholar Julian Symons first stumbled across it and outted it in Bloody Murder (1972), when he proclaimed that “..there is no doubt that the first detective novel, preceding Collins and Gaboriau, was The Notting Hill Mystery.” and the British Library has suggested it “can truly claim to be the first modern detective novel”.
For years, the true identity of the author was unknown. The Once a Week editors maintained that it was submitted to them anonymously under the pseudonym of “Charles Felix“, and for the next 146 or so years that’s all we knew. Oh, there were a few false leads, but in January 2011, writer Paul Collins, after some pretty nifty detective work himself, identified the culprit in The New York Times.
Charles Felix, it turns out, was actually Charles Warren Adams, a journalist, traveler, lawyer and, perhaps most significantly, the sole proprietor of the firm Saunders, Otley & Co., which published Once a Week.
Collins makes a pretty convincing case, basing his deduction on several clues, including an explicit reference to Felix’s identity as Adams in a May 14, 1864 “Literary Gossip” column of The Manchester Times, the suspicious lack of correspondence between publisher and author (why write to yourself?), and Adams’ interests in law (the book’s evidentiary process), games (the puzzle aspects of the genre) and his religious underpinnings (there’s a strong, if surprisingly dark moral aspect to the book).
Well done, Paul.
* * * * *
But what of the novel itself?
It was a Victorian-era potboiler, in all the best senses of the word, and was met with plenty of praise at the time. Even today, it still holds its own. It’s also surprisingly innovative. Related in a series of reproduced diary entries, family letters, depositions, checklists, official documents, forensic reports and even a crime scene map (who did Adams think he was? A Victorian-era Ed McBain?), the reader is pretty much obliged to piece together the story as private enquiry agent RALPH HENDERSON conducts his “minute and laborious investigation.”
In fact, the whole story kicks off with a preliminary report by Henderson to his client, The ––– Life Assurance Association of London, as he relates the results of his investigation of the mysterious death of the wife of Baron R** who sleepwalks into the Baron’s home lab and downs a bottle of acid.
Happens all the time, right?
Henderson soon suspects a rat–the dastardly Baron himself! Apparently, he had recently taken out several life insurance policies on his late wife. This is Victorian pulp at its best: complete with enigmatic typography (Madame ––, Baron **, etc.), creepy mansions, psychics, madness, evil gypsies, loose women, tightrope walkers, kidnapped women, poison, lost inheritances, identical twins, suspicious foreigners, mysterious suicides and of course, a few more murders. No monkeys in the chimney, but almost everything else was crammed in there.
There’s evidently never much doubt about “whodunit,” although the “how” remains a mystery until almost the very end, and then the challenge for Henderson is to prove it.
Which he does, but there’s no tidy, pat ending to comfort readers. As Collins points out, The Notting Hill Mystery ends “not in triumph, but in anguish.” Henderson is left hanging, pondering the very nature of evil, what is to be done about it and what it all means. We never get an answer.
And Ralph? You might say that he’s part of the nastiness now.
Which may be a bit more noir than one would expect in a novel from this era.
- The novel was apparently illustrated by George du Maurier, grandfather of Daphne du Maurier. Cool, eh?
- T.J. Binyon argues in Whodunit?: A Who’s Who in Crime & Mystery Writing (2003) that, “as an insurance investigator, Henderson is not strictly speaking, a private detective.” Bah!
- “The chain of evidence is traced throughout with great minuteness, and the whole narrative is well calculated to awaken and sustain the interest of the reader”
— The Observer
- “… very ingeniously put together.”
— The Guardian
- “The book in its own line stands alone.”
— The Evening Herald
- “… Mr. Felix reminds us, not unfavourably, of some of the prose writings of Edgar Poe. It is a strange story strangely told.”
- “The book is both utterly of its time and utterly ahead of it.”
— Paul Collins, in The New York Times Book Review, January 2011
- “The Notting Hill Mystery (Part One)” (November 29, 1862, Once a Week)
- “The Notting Hill Mystery (Part Two)” (December 6, 1862, Once a Week)
- “The Notting Hill Mystery (Part Three)” (December 13, 1862, Once a Week)
- “The Notting Hill Mystery (Part Four)” (December 20, 1862, Once a Week)
- “The Notting Hill Mystery (Part Five)” (December 27, 1862, Once a Week)
- “The Notting Hill Mystery (Part Six)” (January 3, 1863, Once a Week)
- “The Notting Hill Mystery (Part Seven)” (January 10, 1863, Once a Week)
- “The Notting Hill Mystery (Part Eight)” (January 17, 1863, Once a Week)
- The Notting Hill Mystery (1863; as “Compiled by C. Felix, From the Papers of the Late R. H. Esq.”) | Buy this book
THE DICK OF THE DAY
- Google Books: The Notting Hill Mystery
A peek at the story (in .pdf form) as it original appeared in Once a Week, whittled down to just the relevant pages.
- Before Sherlock or Hercule, There Was Ralph
By Paul Collin . Fascinating, and well worth reading. (January 7, 2011, The New York Times)
- Early Eyes
Early Historical & Literary Influences