A blog by the staff of the Thomas Ford Memorial Library
For nearly 150 years The Notting Hill Mystery was an out-of-print title by an unknown author. It was read only by a small number of mystery fans who considered it one of the very first detective novels, maybe even the very first. But last year author Paul Collins published an essay in The New York Times Book Review (“The Case of the First Mystery Novelist”) in which he did his own bit of thrilling detective work to solve the puzzle of the novel’s authorship. It’s a great little piece of literary journalism–not only did it reveal the name of Charles Warren Adams, first detective novelist, but it also brought a heap of attention onto this pioneering novel. So much attention, in fact, that in March 2012 the British Library published an edition of The Notting Hill Mystery, only the second time it’s been in print since 1863.
The novel is constructed from documents, letters, and personal statements that have been collected by insurance investigator Ralph Henderson in his attempt to show that three recent deaths–all of which lead to a large life insurance claim, not to mention an equally large inheritance–are the result of foul play. The documents-in-the-case narrative technique is one of the most influential elements of the novel, it was used just a few years later in Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone, another novel often cited as the first detective story. Some of the novel’s plot elements would become staples of the Victorian crime novel too: there’s a nefarious Baron, a Gypsy abduction, a case of mistaken identity, a mesmerist, a somnambulist, and an ingenoiusly disguised poisoning–it all makes for some thrilling, sensational reading. Charles Warren Adams is not as fine a novelist as Wilkie Collins or some of the other early mystery writers like Mary Elizabeth Braddon or Emile Gaboriau. His characters, as well as his language, are just a little stiffer than theirs. But all the same, The Notting Hill Mystery is a great read and a great delight to see back in print. True mystery buffs should love this.
Review by Matthew