- ”The Notting Hill mystery”’s modernity
- Poe’s influence
- The mystery of “the Notting Hill mystery”
- The first detective novel or not?
“The Notting Hill mystery” is an English detective novel written and published in 1863 by Charles Félix, very probably the pseudonym of Charles Warren Adams, a lawyer, writer and publisher. “The Notting Hill mystery” is considered in the English-speaking world to be the first detective or crime novel ever written, predating Wilkie Collins or Émile Gaboriau’s works. Whether it is or it is not does not really matter: “The Notting Hill mystery” is a very original and complex book. But mostly, “The Notting Hill mystery” was astonishingly ahead of its time.
Mr Henderson is an insurance investigator, who is presented with a complex case: the death of Baron R’s wife in mysterious circumstances. She dies after sleepwalking into her husband’s laboratory and drinking a bottle of acid. On first appearance, Baron R seems to have had no influence on his wife’s death. He is also said to have loved her very much. But what agitates Henderson is the fact Baron R subscribed five life insurances for his wife, totalling an impressive £25,000 (for the time)…In addition, Baron R has a private laboratory, and seems to understand chemistry very well. After a long and protracted investigation, Henderson comes to the conclusion Baron R has committed not one but three crimes, but still can’t prove it. The end is left at the discretion of the reader: are the elements offered to his attention enough to condemn baron R beyond reasonable doubt? Made up of seven “sections”, “The Notting Hill mystery” is an intricate and organised compilation of documents, medical, legal, chemical analyses, crime map, illustrations, witness statements, depositions of numerous people associated with a case complex that the mystery is not resolved at the end of the book.Got to top
”The Notting Hill mystery”’s modernity
The narrative technique: the overall structure was entirely new at the time, and could still surprise if released today. The whole book is the compilation of nearly seventy documents, comprising of newspaper cuttings, depositions, chemical analyses, multiple depositions, diary entries, personal notes, crime maps, illustrations, unified through the letters and notes of the insurance investigator, Henderson. The result, even if a bit dry, produces a very real feeling, fiction which looks like reality, and which probably was inspired from some real story.
The exotic characters and themes: a Baron, a gypsy abduction, poisoning, mesmerism…All characters and themes would become common staples of the late Nineteenth century detective novel.
The perfect crime: we are probably dealing with the first “perfect crime” novel. At the end of the book, Henderson has the conviction Baron R is the murderer of his wife, but he is not 100% sure, and therefore solicits the opinion of the reader.Got to top
Without taking anything away from Adams’s work, we believe he might have been inspired by Poe’s The murders in the rue Morgue. Poe’s work precedes Adams’s by twenty-years and also is the first ever crime “novel”, or rather short story, involving a detective (which Henderson is not by the way, hence the originality of “The Notting Hill mystery”). In The murders in the rue Morgue, Dupin investigates a graphic and impossible murder. Most of the deduction and logic will be based on reading the depositions, and examining the crime scene. But the idea of having transcripts of depositions, used systematically in “The Notting Hill mystery” has its roots in Poe’s work. Then, in The mystery of Marie Roget, Poe’s hero Dupin will resort to another technique, using clippings of newspapers in order to gather information, find flaws in journalists’ hypotheses and build his own version of the story, leading to the truth, which ends with a twist, as the murderer is not arrested, but suggested.Got to top
The mystery of “the Notting Hill mystery”
First serialised in 1863, then published the same year by Bradbury & Evans, and then in 1865 by Saunders, Otley and co, the publishing house that Adams had helped bail out as a lawyer, and of which he had become the sole representative, “The Notting Hill mystery” remained out of print for 150 years, and was then republished by the British Library in March 2012, which is when it came to our attention. Still, at the time of release, the critical comments were very positive: “Very ingeniously put together” (The Guardian), “a carefully prepared chaos” (the London review)…
The author was a mystery for nearly a hundred years. It is thanks to the work of three curious men, William Buckler in 1952, Julian Symons in 1972, and Paul Collins in 2011 (see the article in the New York Times book review), that the author of “The Notting Hill mystery” (hiding behind the pseudonym “Charles Felix”) was finally identified as Charles Warren Adams. Two clues gave it away: a 1864 literary gossip in “The Manchester Times” which associated the “Velvet lawn” under pseudonym Charles Felix with Saunders, Otley and co.’s sole proprietor Charles Warren Adams, along with another striking observation: there was no correspondence at all between the publishing house, Saunders, Otley and co. and the author Charles Felix. For anyone who knows a bit about independent publishing, the only possible explanation is that the author is also the publisher, and as there was only one at the time, then…it has to be a case of Charles Warren Adams being Charles Felix!Got to top
The first detective novel or not?
We may offer two answers. The first one is no. And this is why: there have been plenty of novels, short stories, tales pioneering the genre. And by the way, that all starts with Vidocq’s publication of his “Memoirs” in 1828, which then influenced Poe (Vidocq is mentioned as a reference by Dupin in The murders in the rue Morgue), and Poe’s Dupin influenced Conan Doyle’s Holmes (refer to A Study in Scarlet), but Vidocq’s extraordinary life also influenced Balzac, specifically for the Vautrin character, as the fourth part of Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes shows for example. And Poe also influences Gaboriau, Poe and Conan Doyle influence Leblanc, Poe influences Leroux, and we can carry on for long here... In this genealogy of the detective novels, soon to become “dime-novels”, then crime novels and hard-boiled romans noirs, there is no room for “The Notting Hill mystery”.
Not so popular when released, forgotten a few years later, fallen into oblivion for over hundred years, “The Notting Hill mystery” can still be seen technically as the first detective novel. But, as we said earlier, it is not so important. The true contribution of “The Notting Hill mystery” to the history of detective and crime novels it its novelty, it utter originality and how ahead of its time it was. We are proud and honoured to publish it.
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