Thursday 16 July 2015

Book Review: The Notting Hill Mystery by Charles Warren Adams

Last Updated: 11 May 2021

The Notting Hill Mystery by Charles Warren Adams book cover

AD* | Can you name the first detective novel ever published? For years, many believed it to be Wilkie Collins’  The Moonstone, published in 1868. Others speculated it might be Émile Gaboriau’s first Monsieur Lecoq novel, L’Affaire Lerouge. Actually, the first modern detective novel predates both of these by several years - Charles Warren Adams’ The Notting Hill Mystery, originally published as an eight-part serial in Once A Week magazine in 1862 under the pseudonym Charles Felix, then as a single-volume novel in 1863 by Bradbury & Evans, is considered to truly be the first.

The Notting Hill Mystery begins in London, where the wife of the sinister Baron R__ dies after drinking from a bottle of acid, apparently while sleepwalking in her husband’s home laboratory. It looks like an accident until insurance investigator Ralph Henderson learns that Baron R__ took out numerous life insurance policies on his wife. As Henderson investigates the case, he discovers not one, but three murders. Presented as Henderson’s evidential findings - diary entries, family letters, chemical analysis reports, interviews with witnesses, along with a crime scene map - the novel displays innovative techniques that would not become common features of detective fiction until the 1920s.

This is a new book blogging experience for me because I’ve only previously reviewed ARCs or newly released books. At over 150 years old, The Notting Hill Mystery is definitely not either of these. But a book is still a book regardless of when it was written, and once I realised that this review suddenly became a lot easier to write!

To start with this book reminded me a lot of The Diary of a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith. Obviously, the language and writing style are similar because they were both written around the same time, but they both also omit the full surname of people they are talking about. I’m far from an expert on the literature of this period, so I’m not sure if that was a common thing at the time, but it definitely jumped out at me in both books. To start with it’s a bit confusing, but once I got used to it I just started referring to the Baron as Baron R in my head anyway, rather than whatever his full name would have been. Plus the format of the two is also similar. As the name implies, The Diary of a Nobody is written in the format of a diary. The Notting Hill Mystery, as explained above, is told through evidence and Henderson’s findings. These are similar, and from what I gather, pretty revolutionary stylistic choices for the time.

The structure is very different and possibly even unique compared to other detective/crime fiction I’ve read. As it’s told through Henderson’s perspective layered over the facts, it comes across as very clinical in its approach. I know that sounds boring, but I actually really liked it. I also liked that parts were told from different witness’ perspectives because that made it sound much more like a real, genuine crime case rather than a work of fiction.

Some bits seemed to be fairly repetitive, but then it’s a fairly complicated plot so I suppose that makes sense. Plus certain elements would be repetitive if this were real life, with different witness statements covering the same points. You also have to remember that it was originally published as a serial, so the author would have had to regularly remind readers what had already happened.

It also took me quite a while to figure out what was actually going on. The beginning wasn’t difficult to understand, on the flip side it was actually pretty involving, but it just jumped straight in with loads of characters at once. That made me get a bit lost, but soon enough I managed to start figuring out what happened even before Henderson did. I’m not sure if that was intentional and the reader is supposed to know the twist already, but I did and it didn’t detract from the rest of the story for me.

It was nice to leave the ARCs and go back to the roots of modern fiction for a change. The Notting Hill Mystery was a good, involving read, and was definitely unique. I’m glad I got the chance to read it!

Rating: 3 stars

The Notting Hill Mystery is available to buy now (paid link; commission earned). 

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* I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review 

This has got me thinking… Should I start reviewing older books and classics on TWG as well as newly released ones? Let me know your opinions in the comments!

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