How did she get those feet?

Alice Spawls

  • BuyThe Notting Hill Mystery: The First Detective Novel by Charles Warren Adams
    British Library, 312 pp, £8.99, February 2012, ISBN 978 0 7123 5859 0
  • BuyThe Female Detective: The Original Lady Detective by Andrew Forrester
    British Library, 328 pp, £8.99, October 2012, ISBN 978 0 7123 5878 1
  • BuyRevelations of a Lady Detective by William Stephens Hayward
    British Library, 278 pp, £8.99, February 2013, ISBN 978 0 7123 5896 5

Little more than forty years separate Poe’s Dupin, the original fictional detective, and A Study in Scarlet, Sherlock Holmes’s first outing, but by the time Conan Doyle put pen to paper everyone was reading detective stories. In the intervening years they multiplied out of sensation and mystery novels, gothic melodramas, feuilletons, casebooks and crime reports and became a genre of their own. Few of the early works are read these days; fewer still are in print, overtaken by their more successful descendants in the two great schools of British detective writing. The late Victorian analytical style of Conan Doyle established the single-problem format: the case is presented, investigated – usually at some risk – and then solved; the explanation of its many subsidiary enigmas withheld until the dénouement. Like Dupin, Holmes is a gentleman amateur whose reasoning invariably outstrips the capabilities of the police. ‘All other men are specialists, but his specialism is omniscience,’ Holmes says of his brother Mycroft, but he could just as well be talking of himself. The reader can’t hope to match his deductions, only marvel at the performance. The era of cold Victorian logic was succeeded by the golden age of the 1920s and 1930s, with its cleverly arranged clues and psycho-social unravelling. In 1928 S.S. Van Dine, the creator of Philo Vance, the American gentleman amateur, laid down Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories for the American Magazine. ‘The reader must have equal opportunity with the detective for solving the mystery’ was the first rule. The Detection Club, whose members included Agatha Christie, Chesterton and Dorothy L. Sayers, agreed. Their protagonists mix deduction with intuition and observation, making the impossible seem not only logical but obvious.

It took some time for the neat formula that is now characteristic of the genre to be refined: the early detectives aren’t ingenious or methodical, neither god nor father figure, just industrious and lucky. Clues turn out not to be clues and much of the detective work consists of waiting, watching and following. A piece of luck changes everything and then there’s a race against time. The plots are often absurd, but in ways proscribed by later writers – using the supernatural or outside agents to explain away the mystery, for example. Where they were successful later writers knew what to take from them – plot twists and red herrings, eccentric habits and loyal sidekicks – while their failures inspired cleverer ways to disarm readers.

Three of the books that fell by the wayside have recently been reissued by the British Library. The Notting Hill Mystery, advertised as ‘the first detective novel’, was published in 1862, six years before The Moonstone, which T.S. Eliot, not altogether correctly, called ‘the first, the longest and the best’ of detective novels. The Female Detective, a collection of stories, came soon afterwards in 1864, and Revelations of a Lady Detective the same year; all were serialised.

The Notting Hill Mystery is presented as a dossier of evidence collected by an insurance agent, Ralph Henderson, investigating the mysterious death of a woman whose husband had taken out five life insurance policies for her. The evidence includes letters by most of the characters – the servants have terrible spelling – spanning 27 years, as well as diary entries, pencil notes, memoranda, a marriage certificate, witness statements, a plan of the victim’s house, a facsimile of a fragment of a letter in French, a transcript of the fragment and then an attempt to complete and translate it. The book’s author, Charles Adams, may have been trying to compensate for the flimsy plot. Twin girls, who share a psychic ability to feel each other’s pain, are separated as children when the younger, Catherine, is stolen by Gypsies. The elder, Gertie, grows up and gets married but is always unwell. She comes under the influence of Baron R**, a mesmerist, who claims he can help her, and seems to do so with the assistance of a medium, a young woman who turns out to be … her lost sister! The confusing difference in their appearance – Catherine’s extremely large feet – is accounted for by her tightrope-walking career. When the Baron discovers Gertie is about to inherit a large fortune he decides to take advantage of the twins’ psychic connection. He marries Catherine and uses his hypnotic skill to make her sleepwalk and drink poison. She survives but, because of their psychic connection, the poison kills her weaker sister. Gertie’s overwrought husband is accused of the murder: desperate at the thought of the scaffold, he turns to the Baron, who provides him with the means to end it all. Now that the heiress and her husband are out of the picture, the Baron only needs to compel Catherine to drink poison again – a little more this time – and the fortune, plus the life insurance, is his.

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[1] Bee Wilson reviewed The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale in the LRB of 19 June 2008.

[2] BBC Books, 320 pp., £20, September 2013, 978 1 84990 634 3.

[3] Peter Owen, 284 pp., £9.99, May 2013, 978 0 7206 1516 6.