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The First Detective Novel

January 11, 2011

Last week, NPR in the US ran an interview with Professor Paul Collins, in which host Scott Simon asked “Who wrote the first detective novel?” Collins came up with an answer, The Notting Hill Mystery, published in 1862, by a writer known as Charles Felix, whose real name was Charles Warren Adams. Collins has spent some time unravelling Charles Warren Adams’s identity, and the history of his book. He gives a little more detail in an article in Sunday’s New York Times Book Review:

“The Notting Hill Mystery,” published with illustrations by George Du Maurier (the grandfather of Daphne), was extraordinarily innovative. It is presented as Henderson’s own findings — diary entries, family letters, depositions of servant girls, even a chemical analyst’s report. Its crime-scene map and reproduced “evidence” were ideas that wouldn’t gain currency again until the 1920s. The book is both utterly of its time and utterly ahead of it. Symons, writing in 1975, admitted it “quite bowled me over.”

Victorian reviewers felt the same way. The Guardian found it “very ingeniously put together,” and The Evening Herald hailed its genius, declaring, “The book in its own line stands alone.” The one mixed appraisal shows a reviewer grappling for the first time with just what a detective novel is. “The Notting Hill Mystery,” according to The London Review, was “a carefully prepared chaos, in which the reader, as in the game called solitaire, is compelled to pick out his own way to the elucidation of the proposed puzzle.”

Charles Felix quickly issued a Christmas gift book called “Barefooted Birdie” and the unremarkable novel “Velvet Lawn.” Another novel appeared so briefly that the British Library now holds one of only four known copies. And with that, the inventor of the detective novel vanished like the killer in a locked-room mystery.

Until Now.

The Notting Hill Mystery is available from the British Library as a Print on Demand facsimile edition, via Amazon.


2 Comments leave one →
  1. Michelle permalink
    January 19, 2011 8:14 pm

    Hes wrong, wouldn’t want him as a professor. The first detective novel was the Woman in the White Dress by Wilkie Collins–1860. Check the details.

    • January 19, 2011 8:24 pm

      It’s The Woman in White, but you have a point, up to a point. The problem, as ever, is in defining what a detective novel actually is. Is The Woman in White a detective novel, or a romance/adventure novel with detection in it? I think the latter, but it’s not clear cut by any means: Bleak House (1852-3) is in the frame too.

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