Posted by me last Friday on this blog was an advance announcement of an essay by Paul Collins in today’s New York Times Book Review section, in which he revealed the identity of the hitherto unknown author of The Notting Hill Mystery, described as the world’s first detective novel. The book version was published in 1865, but before that, the novel had appeared in serialized form in Once a Week magazine, beginning with the November 29, 1862, issue.

   The identification of “Charles Felix” as Mr. Charles Warren Adams seems solid enough. It’s the characterization of The Notting Hill Mystery as the first detective novel that no longer is valid. When I reported the news on Yahoo’s FictionMags group, I received the following reply from well-known science fiction writer and historian Brian Stableford:


    “The ‘world’s first detective novel’ was Jean Diable by Paul Féval, published as a serial in Le Siècle between August 1 and November 20, 1862, and reprinted in book form by Dentu in 1863. An English translation, as John Devil, was published by Black Coat Press in 2004.

    “It features the (anachronistic) Scotland Yard detective Gregory Temple’s sustained attempt to pin a series of murders on the eponymous archvillain — ­a project eventually compromised by the insistence of Féval’s editor, presumably in response to reader demand, that, as the suspect was French and the detective English, the latter could not be allowed to triumph.”

   My reply, somewhat shortened, was: Just to sure, if I may ask — definitions may be important here. Even though Jean Diable had a character who was a detective, it sounds as though the novel may have been a thriller rather than a detective story. The distinction may be more important to some than to others, I know.

   Brian’s response:

    “The only definitional quibble that could arise with respect to Jean Diable is that because it was a feuilleton it had to be made up as Féval went along, without his knowing how long it would run and always remaining vulnerable to editorial diktat, and had to be all things to all readers — effectively, a kind of soap opera, with multiple narrative threads and romance as well as criminal conspiracies.

    “In this instance, as in many others, Féval was obviously instructed to change the intended ending, so the extant version ultimately makes no sense, unless you read it very carefully indeed (see my afterword to the Black Coat Press edition).

    “Gregory Temple is, however, a detective in every sense of the word, with an analytical method for solving crimes based on motive, opportunity and physical evidence (a method he is foolish enough to publish, thus giving the villain a guide-book as to how to frame someone else for his crimes).

    “Having been almost conclusively fooled, Temple notices one small detail out of place (a forged postmark, revealed by inspection with a magnifying-glass) and is thus able to cut through the web of deception and identify the real guilty party.

    “Unfortunately, Féval was obviously told that the readers liked the villain far better than the detective, so Temple isn’t allowed to obtain a conviction in the eventual trial. The reader knows from the start who the real guilty party is (although the text tries to backtrack on that), so it’s more like Columbo than Agatha Christie, but it’s definitely a detective story.”

[UPDATE] 01-10-11.   I’ve been away from the computer most of the day, and I’m still in the process of going through the email this post has brought forth. Many of these emails, as well as the comments that have already been left, plus suggestions I have have seen elsewhere, have included other books that ought be be in the running as “the world’s first detective novel.”

   On the Yahoo FictionMags list, for example, Doug Greene said (and this is a very small excerpt from a longer post), “Many of the sensation novels from the early 1860’s come close to detection. A strong argument can be made that Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s The Trail of the Serpent (1861) is a detective story — perhaps the first full-length one.”

   Last October on this blog, in the midst of a flurry of lists of favorite and significant books from various eras, David Vineyard submitted “100 Important Books From Before the Golden Age,” a list of titles not all of which were intended to be Detective Novels, but each of which he felt were progenitors of the form in one way or another. It’s very much worth your going back to re-read it.

   While it’s awfully fun to try, attempts to name the first of almost anything historically are almost always doomed to failure, not in terms of obtaining universal agreement. I’m not convinced that anyone can say that any one book is a detective novel, and this other one, which came before it, is not, even if you have a definition everyone agrees with, an event which I suggest is next to impossible in and of itself.

   Literary history proceeds in incremental fashion, building on what came before, not quantum jumps.

[UPDATE #2.] 01-11-11. I received the following email from Paul Collins before I added the update above, but after he had seen Brian Stableford’s comments about Jean Diable, by Paul Féval:

Dear Steve:

    Many thanks for the links, and for the kind attention to the article!

    I first became interested in tracing The Notting Hill Mystery last spring, after a footnote in the OUP edition of The Moonstone got me curious about the mysterious Charles Felix.

    I am, perhaps, too quick to accept Symons’ snub of Féval, who seemed to regard Féval as a writer of “criminal romances.” Mr. Stableford’s perspective on this is certainly of interest, and I do hope that he may note Féval’s work in a letter to the editors.

    If I may hazard one potential line of inquiry: regardless of how these things are categorized, if Féval and Adams were indeed published just three months apart, that may be suggestive. Adams is also known to lived in France in the early 1860s, so perhaps he was reading Féval. Or maybe it was “in the air” — interesting timing, in any case!