I have always understood that the first mystery novel was The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, but last year I read an article that said the first mystery novel was actually The Notting Hill Mystery by Charles Felix (pen name for Charles Warren Adams), which was published serially in 1862 before being published in a book. Even more interestingly, this article made a good case for the actual author being Benjamin Disraeli, the prime minister of England (that is, for Charles Felix being a pen name for a pen name). Well, of course I had to read it.
Two wealthy sisters have a sympathetic connection that makes them each get ill when the other is ill. The stronger sister is stolen away by gypsies at the age of five.
Years later, the other sister marries a wealthy man, and she and her husband fall under the spell of a mesmerist, the sinister Baron R. He has an assistant who develops a mysterious sympathy with the wife. Baron R. figures out the two are sisters and marries his assistant.
Soon, the Baroness is dead, having apparently swallowed a bottle of acid while sleepwalking in her husband’s laboratory. It looks like an accident until the insurance investigator, Ralph Henderson, learns that Baron R. took out several life insurance policies on his wife. As he investigates, he finds there may actually have been three murders.
If you have read many 19th century mysteries, you’ll know they tend to be overcomplicated, and this one is no exception. Also in common with other early mysteries, it has a strong flavor of the gothic.
The story is narrated entirely as depositions, which makes it seem more removed from the reader. Although Wilkie Collins used a similar device in The Moonstone, his character’s depositions teem with personality, and he is much more skillful at revealing prejudices and flaws.
In addition, the mystery is not very mysterious. Within 40 pages, it was perfectly clear where things were headed. However, as a new representative of a genre, I’m certain the story was blood-curdling to Victorian readers, whose only other exposure might have been to short stories by Edgar Allan Poe featuring detective C. August Dupin. It certainly compares at least equally or even favorably with some of the “Golden Age” mysteries I have read (for example, by John Dickson Carr) that concentrate more on timetables than on character development and motives.