The Notting Hill Mystery
The Notting Hill Mystery was first published between 1862 and 1863 as an eight-part serial in the magazine Once a Week, written under the pseudonym Charles Felix. It has been widely described as the first detective novel, pre-dating as it does other novels such as Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone (1868) and Emile Gaboriau’s first Monsieur Lecoq novel (1869) that have previously claimed that accolade. The story is told by insurance investigator Ralph Henderson, who is building a case against the sinister Baron ‘R___’, suspected of murdering his wife in order to obtain significant life insurance payments. Henderson descends into a maze of intrigue including a diabolical mesmerist, kidnapping by gypsies, slow-poisoners, a rich uncle’s will and three murders. Presented in the form of diary entries, family letters, chemical analysis reports, interviews with witnesses and a crime scene map, the novel displays innovative techniques that would not become common features of detective fiction until the 1920s. Now made available again, with George du Maurier’s original illustrations included for the first time since the original serial publication, this new edition of The Notting Hill Mystery will be welcomed by all fans of detective fiction.
The Notting Hill Mystery is, according to the introduction, either the first true detective story or among the first true detective stories, though it departs a little from the type by featuring not a police or private detective, but an insurance investigator, and by presenting all the gathered evidence without presenting the investigation by which the evidence was acquired.
Baron R- has recently insured his wife for a startling sum. Obviously, doubts begin to arise when she does, in fact, die shortly after, apparently by taking poison while sleepwalking. Our investigator is sent to make sense of the event, and through diligent sleuthing, uncovers a bizarre swirl of soap-opera family drama, mesmerism, and, of course, murder. Quite a number of murders, actually.
I’m a sucker for the epistolary novel, ever since I read Dracula, and this one is especially well done. Each speaker (or writer, rather) has a distinct and identifiable voice, so that they don’t all run together. Each one sounds like an individual. That added verisimilitude makes you wonder – just once or twice – whether you might not actually be reading a case file rather than a work of fiction.
And, while there is a certain amount of the expected swooning and crying out and running from rooms that Victorian works so frequently exhibit, it doesn’t skew ridiculous even once. I’d say that a woman being eaten alive by a powerful acid has every right to cry out, actually.
The long, convoluted language is a little hard to get through, though not excessively so.
The plot also hinges on some really laughable period “science”. Namely, that the sympathy between twins is so great that you can kill one by poisoning the other. And of course, that you can hypnotize a woman into poisoning herself. << Highlight text for spoilers.
It was certainly a very interesting read, if for no other reason than because I enjoyed identifying some of the early earmarks of the nascent genre. The Notting Hill Mystery certainly does differ markedly from the genre it helped create.
I was a little irked when it became apparent that it’s really a paranormal mystery, not because I dislike paranormal mystery but because I was expecting something more grounded in reality. However, once I had reconciled myself to that fact, it was a very enjoyable read. I can’t really fault the book for not being what I expected, especially when it does such a good job of being what it is.
Solid four stars.
I received a copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.