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the figure eight
16 october 2010
I admired Metta Fuller Victor's early detective novel The Dead Letter very much, but I have to report that its companion piece in Catherine Ross Nickerson's 2003 edition, The Figure Eight, is not up to the quality of its weird and energetic precursor.
Once again, in The Figure Eight, we have a murder story narrated by the prime suspect. Joe Meredith, like Richard Redfield in The Dead Letter, is the poor but honest hero suspected of killing someone so he can court his benefactor's daughter. In The Figure Eight Joe is suspected of killing the benefactor himself, his venerable uncle Dr Meredith. The good old doctor has departed this life full of prussic acid, divested of a big box of gold ingots, and in the process of scrawling a note that ends in a curious figure eight.
For a while, The Figure Eight is full of a sinister persistence. Everyone's looking for the gold, and the only clue, that figure eight, is underdetermined and ambiguous. At one point Joe and several other characters start to tear up a paved walk by dislodging various eighth stones from somewhere, forgetting that every stone in the walk is eight stones from somewhere. This gets rather postmodern.
But then months go by, and nobody's closer to finding the gold or solving the murder. Joe officially disappears from the village of Hampton, only to spend most of his time in the Doctor's own house, hiding out and presenting the appearance of a ghost. He discovers that someone's using the Doctor's abandoned laboratory to cast gold from ingots into eagles. The plot moves torpidly along while a fairly unrelated melodrama of manners imposes itself on the novel. Various courting couples square off, pair, and re-pair, and everybody seems to get along nicely, if uninterestingly, while a gold-coining murderer is active in their midst.
The book ends protractedly and obliquely, finally developing a guilty party from among its cast of suspects. As with The Dead Letter, the only really satisfying conclusion would be to find that the narrator himself was the perp, but that's not happening. And by contrast to The Dead Letter, there's no professional detective to attract our interest. Joe himself is dogged enough in pursuit of the Doctor's murderer, but he's just not very bright.
Well, what do you want out of true dime-novel fiction? Yet whatever its lapses, The Figure Eight is worth reading as an early American contribution to the murder mystery. Pulp it may be, but its prose is as serviceable as that of many a canonical text. Fuller Victor was a writer of many gifts and some strong ideas, and here she merely falls short of the standards she'd set for herself.
Victor, Metta Fuller. The Figure Eight. 1869. In The Dead Letter & the Figure Eight. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003. 211-388.