The Notting Hill Mystery
Charles Warren Adams (as Charles Felix)
First published in the UK 1862-3 in ‘Once a Week’
This edition 2012, British Library Publishing
Two alternatives present themselves. In the first we must altogether ignore a chain of circumstantial evidence so complete and close-fitting in every respect, as it seems almost impossible to disregard; in the second, we are inevitably led to a conclusion so at variance with all the most firmly established laws of nature, as it seems almost equally impossible to accept.
So begins the perplexed detective Ralph Henderson in his report to the Secretary of ______ Life Assurance, copied to the sundry other insurance companies that have commissioned him to look into the suspicious death of Madame R**, an apparent tragic victim of her own somnambulism.
The Notting Hill Mystery, usually described as the first detective novel (novel, not story) takes the form of Henderson’s report to his employers, together with a collection of witness statements.
Henderson’s extensive investigations have established a link between the death of Madame R** and another notorious case, that of the Andertons. To demonstrate the connection, he has to delve back into history to tell the story of twin sisters, Gertrude and Catherine. Their father Lord Boleton has been killed in a duel; their mother dies in childbirth, so the family simply leaves them with a woman in Hastings to bring up. On the plus side, their father has bequeathed them a significant fortune.
They are not identical twins: Gertrude is a pale and sickly child, Catherine more lively and intelligent. However, they do have that fabled link that twins seem to display in books and Channel 5 documentaries – when Catherine falls ill, Gertrude suffers too, only more so.
Then, in an authentically Victorian twist, Catherine is kidnapped by a gang of gypsies and never seen again.
Move on 20 years, and Gertrude finds herself happily married to a Mr William Anderton. She has stayed sickly, and her husband (a gullible man) explores various brands of quackery to help her. Eventually the couple turn to Mesmerism as a cure for her headaches. Enter Baron R**:
a short, stout man, with a rather florid complexion and reddish hair, rather light. He dresses all in black and wears large spectacles of light blue. I don’t think it is because his eyes are weak. I am sure it is not; for when he takes off his spectacles I never saw such extraordinary eyes.
And, obviously, the villain of the piece.
As the Baron’s direct Mesmeric ‘manipulations’ are judged to be a little inappropriate, a young woman called Rosalie is drafted in to act as a go-between. The Baron Mesmerises Rosalie, and she passes on all the animal-magnetic benefits to Gertrude (see the picture at the top for what this odd little arrangement looks like). Rosalie and Gertrude have a link that goes beyond their Mesmerism, a link spotted by Baron R** and soon used to his nefarious ends. You’ve probably guessed the link already, as well as the nefarious means to his nefarious ends.
Interestingly, there is a good deal of scepticism about Mesmerism in the book, not least from the investigator Henderson:
I beg at the outset most distinctly to state that I would rather admit my own researches to have been baffled by an illusory coincidence, than lay myself open to the imputation of giving the slightest credit to that impudent imposture.
I found this intriguing, since I thought Mesmerism was simply hypnotism, and that hypnosis was fairly uncontroversially real. However, a brief internet tour of the history of Mesmerism reveals that it was a much odder proposition than merely hypnotism. All this sort of malarkey:
… there exists in man, as one of his constituent principles, a certain subtle element, known by the names of animal electricity, animal magnetism, galvanism, the nervous energy, the nervous fluid, etc. This element occupies a sort of intermediate position between soul and body, and it is by means of this animal electricity that our mental will acts upon our bodily organs.
The dangers of Mesmerism were apparently a popular cultural theme, typified by Isabella Frances Romer’s Sturmer: a Tale of Mesmerism (1841) and of course this book.
Incidentally, the book features lovely artwork by George du Maurier (Daphne’s grandfather). It’s well worth clicking on them to see them in their full glory. In 1894, du Maurier’s own novel Trilby appeared, the book which introduced the evil hypnotist Svengali – was he influenced by his work on The Notting Hill Mystery?
If you like Wilkie Collins, you’ll probably like The Notting Hill Mystery – and it has the additional advantage of brevity. It also has features which showed up again much later in the history of the genre: a map of the crime scene, reproductions of key documents, a fairly gory report of an autopsy, and a summary chapter which gives references for each point in Henderson’s argument. It is also very readable, and great fun. Well worth your time.
This is the third of my reviews of Victorian crime novels brought back into print by the British Library. See also The Female Detective and Revelations of a Lady Detective.
And also: The Moonstone, The Woman in White
I am entering The Notting Hill Mystery in the Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge, in the Psychic Phenomena category.
Final destination: A keeper
Past Offences by Rich Westwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Rich – I always think brevity a very positive quality in a book. And this does sound like classic Victorian crime fiction. Thanks for delving even deeper, so to speak, into the past for this one.
Rich, thanks for this detailed review. My husband bought this book recently at our favorite local bookshop. Based on your review, it sounds like he will like it.
Will look for this one. I love the history and the review and esp. those Du Maurier drawings~
They’re great, aren’t they? I forgot to say thanks to the BL for sending me their nice scans.
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