Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Review: THE NOTTING HILL MYSTERY by Charles Warren Adams

book cover
Is it just me, or does the guy in the hat
look like he's peeing on the other guy?

I received a reprint copy of this book from The British Library for review consideration. However, I am basing this review on the free audiobook available at Librivox.

Original Publication Date: 1862-63

Genre: Detective novel, epistolary novel

Topics: Mesmerism, twins, somnambulism, the perfect crime

Review by heidenkind:

As insurance investigator Ralph Henderson looks into the apparent suicide of Madame R___, reconstructing her final days and her relationship with her husband, he unravels a plot thick with mesmerism and three possibly-related deaths. Henderson is sure Baron R____ killed his wife for profit–but can he prove it? Or has the Baron committed the perfect crime?

The Notting Hill Mystery is, according to experts on these things, the very first detective novel. Consistent with my experiences reading other "first of their genre" novels *coughCastleofOtrantocough*, it's a very odd book. You can definitely see the influence of Victorian sensationalism, and there is hella lot of weird stuff going on. For example:

  • Baron R___ is a mesmerist.
  • His wife is one of a set of twins.
  • Her other twin was KIDNAPPED by GYPSIES. One really wonders where these gypsies were hiding all the blonde-haired girls they were supposed to be kidnapping, but I digress.
  • Naturally, having been kidnapped by gypsies, the other twin becomes a circus performer.

And that's just the first section of the book! Using newspaper articles, witness statements, and expert testimony, Henderson tells us about the death of Madame R____. It's obvious from the first that Baron R____ is her killer, because husband and five life insurance policies on one woman. But howwwww he committed the murder is the real mystery, since he made sure his wife was never left alone and he never made her food or served it to her. Or did he?!

I listened to the Librivox version of this book, and Kevin Green deserves more than a passing mention as the narrator because he did an absolutely fantastic job of giving each character their own voice and accent. The Notting Hill Mystery could have easily been an intelligible mess on audio, but thanks to Green it was easy to follow and even entertaining. I don't usually go for epistolary novels because I like to have more of a sense of plot and story, but Adams, along with Green, made it work well. If you read The Notting Hill Mystery in ebook format, Victorian Web recommends getting the version with George du Maurier's (Daphne du Maurier's granpop) illustrations, as they supposedly add a lot to the story. They are pretty cool. This one's my favorite:

last illustration from THE NOTTING HILL MYSTERY by George du Maurier

That said, I'm a little tempted to just recommend you read Henderson's intro and conclusion, since he summarizes everything the reader learns in the middle of the book with a level of detail that renders the previous 235 pages pretty much irrelevant. On the other hand, I did kind of enjoy the middle part, so I suppose it's up to you.

As for whether or not I'd say this is the first detective novel, I'm not sure I'd go THAT far. It's definitely a mystery, but I'm not sure I'd call what Henderson does "detecting;" it's more like he's gathering all the available information. He never comes to any conclusion as to who the killer is (even though it's obvious) or finds evidence proving murder one way or the other. At the very end he's like, "Did Baron R___ kill his wife? *shrug* IDK." To be fair, the way the Baron set up the murder makes it almost impossible to prove, but Sherlock Holmes or C. Auguste Dupin would have put the guy away.

If you're into early mysteries or have an academic interest in English literature, I think The Notting Hill Mystery is definitely worth checking out. For the average reader, however, maybe not so much. It's not a bad book, but it's a little too odd and quirky for anyone who isn't curious about it because of its place in history.

Download The Notting Hill Mystery by Charles Warren Adams at Project Gutenberg|Librivox|Internet Archive: Sections 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8