When my wife and I were in London in September for vacation, one of the places we wanted to see was the British Library, which houses everything from the Magna Carta and Jane Austen’s lap desk to Paul McCartney’s first written version of “Yesterday” (you can guess which exhibit in the great documents exhibit area drew the largest crowds). And the shop at the library, while not huge, is exactly what you expect from an institution housing some of the greatest documents in history.
The shop is a book lover’s dream. I knew I was going to have a difficult time walking out and not being weighted down. The poetry section was good, and the children’s book section was excellent. But it was the mystery section that I found myself most attracted to: all those reproductions of great mystery stories, from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
One that drew my attention had a simple, faux worn cover: The Notting Hill Mystery by Charles Warren Adams. Yes, it’s hard to see “Notting Hill” and not think of the Julia Roberts –Hugh Grant movie, but the book shares only the place name. What led me to pick it up and see what it was about were the words on the cover, “The First Detective Novel.” All right, I thought, someone’s never heard of Edgar Allen Poe and The Murders in the Rue Morgue, or Wilkie Collins and The Moonstone.
Actually, they had. The introduction is by Mike Ashley, the British author, editor and bibliographer of works in several genres, including mysteries, science fiction, and fantasy. And he succinctly considers the potential competitors and makes a compelling case for The Notting Hill Mystery, first published in serialized form in the periodical Once a Week, from 1862 to 1863. It was published as a novel in 1865. The book has been reprinted over the years; this edition was published by the British Library in 2012.
Until 2011, the author, originally known as “Charles Felix,” was something of a mystery; the name was assumed to be a pseudonym, and Felix had published only one other work, Velvet Lawns, by the same publisher. Then in 2011, an article in The New York Times Book Review identified who Felix actually was – Charles Warren Adams, the proprietor of the publishing form that produced the book. Adams was best known for his work with the Anti-Vivisectionist Society, but in something of a scandalous way. Mildred Coleridge a society board member and great-grand-niece of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, flouted society and moved in with Adams in 1883.
The work itself reads surprisingly like a 19th century mystery and a contemporary story at the same time. The narrative is a collection of a series of reports by Ralph Henderson, an investigator for a life insurance company. He is dogged in tracking down what happened in three mysterious deaths, which he’s convinced were not accidental. The case involves unraveling the story of events over at least 25 years, and includes the discovery of family connections, eyewitness accounts that turn out to depend upon reputation rather than what was actually seen, hypnosis, amateur science, and impressive investigative work by Mr. Henderson.
The Notting Hill Mystery is an intriguing story, not the least for which is how little we actually learn of the insurance agent/detective. The book is also something of a window into what English Victorian readers of the 1860s would have entertaining, and a reminder that we may not be so different today.
Illustration: A scene from the novel when it was first serialized.