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the dead letter

15 september 2010

I am wary of rediscovered 19th-century novels. Many outstanding ones were rediscovered in the 1980s and 1990s, mostly by women writers, but the outpouring of scholarly attention has had the effect of overfishing the sea of out-of-print Victorian fiction. So my expectations were low when I ran across (by pure chance) a pristine library copy of The Dead Letter & the Figure Eight, a reprinting of two 1860s mystery novels by the extremely obscure American writer Metta Fuller Victor. The back of the Duke University Press edition, put together by Catherine Ross Nickerson, promised that these were the first full-length detective novels published in the United States, and that they combined "conventions of the mystery form first developed by Edgar Allan Poe with those of the detective novel." Well, I pretty much had to try reading one of them, but I wasn't counting on much.

When will I stop judging books by their covers? (Or indeed, by my fading memories of other books?) The Dead Letter is well worth the read. I don't think its historical value is quite what Nickerson ascribes to it, but its entertainment value is quite high for mystery fans even after 140+ years of dust-gathering.

We're in a familiar world of opulent country estates, ardent if virginal lovers, treasures that disappear from locked drawers, and victims despatched by stabbing. Richard Redfield, hero and narrator, is a dependent in the house of Mr Argyll, a wealthy lawyer of Blankville, New York. He hopes to become Argyll's law partner, and dreams idly of becoming Argyll's son-in-law. But the woman he loves, Eleanor Argyll, is way out of his league: plus she's engaged to marry Henry Moreland, a spruce young city banker. At least until Henry is stopped in his tracks by a shiv to the lung.

The world of the novel is familiar not from Poe or domestic fiction but from Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White, the great sensational thriller of the 1860s. So obvious is the influence of Collins on Fuller Victor that it's odd that Nickerson mentions Collins only in passing, and The Woman in White not at all. But Collins seems not to fit her paradigm. He's English, and it's more natural for a literary scholar to seek American models for American texts. And though there's copious detection in The Woman in White, there's no true detective.

Burton, the detective in The Dead Letter, is an original creation. He's a little like Dupin in Poe's stories, it's true, but he's much more fleshed-out. We can see foreshadowings in Burton of any number of later detectives: the gentleman amateur with a professional ethic, aided by a narrator/sidekick (Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Nero Wolfe), the forensic specialist (Holmes, but also a line of magnifier-wielding sleuths from Ellery Queen to Gus Grissom), and the haunted PI with a past (Lew Archer, Adrian Monk).

Burton knows what everyone else is doing, sometimes by employing operatives, sometimes because he has a kind of sixth sense ("it enables me, often, to feel the presence of criminals" 201), sometimes because he disappears from the scene and goes undercover (much like Holmes), sometimes because he's a profiler who can learn anything about a suspect from the barest scrap of handwriting (Holmes again), and sometimes because he puts his clairvoyant daughter Lenore into a trance and has her keep a telepathic eye on the doings of shady characters. Lenore is presented so matter-of-factly that we step out of the world of Holmes and Columbo and Monk for a while and enter that of Philip K. Dick: The Dead Letter is a novel that imagines whole technologies of surveillance that are purely science-fictional. (Yet truly SF, not fantasy; the reality of ESP was a matter for the sciences in the 19th century, not entirely for the bunco squad.) "Victor's novel is remarkably sanguine about the effects of surveillance on professional-class domestic life," remarks Nickerson, "at least as long as the detective comes from that same social class" (6). And The Dead Letter is not just a fount of first ideas; it's a brisk story. Dated, for sure: sometimes its ethnocentrism is laughable. When the killer hides in Mexico, Fuller Victor explains that

A Spaniard he was at heart, and he had found, in his present life, a congenial sphere. Not that all Spaniards are necessarily murderers—but their code of right and wrong is different from ours. (181)
Fuller Victor's opinion of the Irish is that they are slightly higher than domestic animals. And she is so shocked by card-playing that she classes it as an "absolutely bad habit" (82) that can be revealed only at the cost of a reputation destroyed.

But these flaws are truly incidental. At the heart of The Dead Letter is a mystery with intriguing elements, especially Burton himself. The main plot is fairly obvious, but we are left wanting to know more about the sleuth (frustratingly, because this was the first and last Burton novel. Despite her acumen as a publisher of dime novels, and her invention of many a mystery device, Fuller Victor apparently failed to pull the trigger on the invention of the mystery series.) Above all, the idea of using Redfield as the narrator is keen in its foreshadowing of a pervasive later device. Not only is our hero the teller of the story and one of the investigators, but he's also Suspect Number One. You sort of know that he can't be guilty in a twisty Agatha-Christie way, but until the final assembling-the-suspects scene with its big revolution, Fuller Victor had me guessing. If she could do that across an intervening fourteen decades of the detective story, she had a pretty sharp talent.

Victor, Metta Fuller. The Dead Letter. 1867. In The Dead Letter & the Figure Eight. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003. 13-207.