Who Wrote The First Detective Novel?

Whodunnit? Host Scott Simon talks with Weekend Edition Literary Detective Paul Collins, who did some sleuthing to find out when and where the first detective novel was written.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Who done it? You know, who wrote the first detective novel? Way before Chandler, Hammett or Robert Parker. Maybe somebody who wrote it in the parlor with a quill pen.

With all the clues and answers: our own literary detective, Paul Collin, who's done some sleuthing and figured out who wrote the first detective novel. He joins us from the studios of Oregon Public Broadcasting in Portland.

Thanks very much for being back with us, Paul.

Professor PAUL COLLINS (Portland State University): Oh, it's good to be here.

SIMON: So what was it, Paul?

Prof. COLLINS: "The Notting Hill Mystery." You know, the usual suspects are Edgar Allen Poe, 'cause he wrote "The Murder in the Rue Morgue," in 1841, which, you know, most people would consider to really be the first piece of detective fiction. It's the first short story with a detective at the center of it. Or Wilkie Collins, who wrote "The Moonstone," and he kind of married Poe's idea with the sprawling novels of Dickens. And that was in 1868.

Almost all of the elements that we associate with detective fiction you can actually find in those early works - the kind of eccentric but brilliant detective, the bumbling local constables, the mystery in a country manor, red herrings, re-enacting the crime - all that stuff is in there. And so, you know, they're typically thought of as kind of the parents of the genre.

It turns out that there is kind of an eccentric uncle living in the attic though.

SIMON: So who done it?

Prof. COLLINS: Well, Charles Felix did it. But the real mystery is we don't know who Charles Felix is, or at least didn't. I actually first came across this a while back when I was reading "The Moonstone." And there was a footnote in it mentioning most people consider this sort of the first detective novel, but by the way, there's an earlier one, called "The Notting Hill Mystery," that came out in 1862, and nobody knows who wrote it.

And that was pretty much the whole footnote. And I went: What?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. COLLINS: And so I started to look into it.

SIMON: Wow. And?

Prof. COLLINS: Well...

SIMON: ...don't leave us hanging, man. You know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. COLLINS: So, yeah, "The Notting Hill Mystery" was this - it's a mystery that appeared initially in a magazine, a once-a-week magazine which was kind of a direct competitor to Charles Dickens's magazine, which was Household Words. And it started to run in late 1862 and it ran in eight installments going into 1863.

And the story behind "The Notting Hill Mystery," it's set-up as a series of letters from a private investigator to an insurance company, that they've hired him because the Baron R, who's just identified by his initial - as common with Victorian novels - and his wife, Madam R - his wife has passed away.

And his wife has passed away because she was sleepwalking and went into the baron's private laboratory - because he was an enthusiastic amateur chemist, and in her sleepwalking picked up a bottle of acid and drank it.

SIMON: Paul?

Prof. COLLINS: And the insurance...

SIMON: Paul? Paul, hold up for a moment. Ready?

Prof. COLLINS: Sure.

SIMON: (Singing) Da-da-da-dum.

(Speaking) Go ahead.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. COLLINS: So it turns out the baron has a life insurance policy on his wife. And in looking at this...

SIMON: Ooh-ooh.

Prof. COLLINS: Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. COLLINS: Well, it gets worse. They discover that he doesn't have just one insurance policy for 5,000 pounds. He's actually taken out five life insurance policies, each worth 5,000 pounds with five different insurance companies.

They put a private investigator on the case to see if really her death was an accident. And what he unravels is not just one murder, but three, and that the baron actually is clearly responsible for them. And that's actually made fairly clear actually from the onset of the book, but you don't know how he did it.

And by the end of the book, you know how he did it but you cannot figure how anyone can catch him. He's basically committed the perfect crime.

SIMON: My gosh. Is it possible for you tell what kind of affect this might have had?

Prof. COLLINS: Well, you know, it's curious. It came out in magazine form first. And then about three years later, in 1865, it was published in book form. And when the book came out, it attracted very favorable reviews. And reviewers were really struck by - this hadn't been done before.

The whole idea of a detective novel was basically new to them. And in fact, they almost didn't even know how to react to it or how to explain it to their readers. One of the reviews that came out said: This is best understood like a game of solitaire or like a puzzle that you've been handed to figure out.

The genre didn't really exist at that point so they had to explain to readers that the whole idea behind this is that you've been handed a puzzle.

SIMON: Of course the question that remains, Paul: Who was Charles Felix?

Mr. COLLINS: His identity has been hidden for 149 years, but his real name is Charles Warren Adams. And, in fact, they didn't know back then either. There was actually a handbook of fictitious names that came out in 1868, and it has Charles Felix listed in it, and when you look next to it, there's a pair of empty brackets; they didn't know the real name.

And so I started searching around, and at first I wasn't able to find anything either. There was absolutely no hint of who this was. And, in fact, I went to the publisher's archives for Saunders & Otley, which was the publisher; there were no letters from the publisher to the author, which was really weird.

And so what I started to do is I started to - I noticed that this guy, the so-called Charles Felix, had written another book, called "Velvet Lawn" that had actually been published by Saunders & Otley a year earlier, and so I started looking around for the authorship of that. And after going through hundreds and hundreds of documents and old newspaper articles, I finally hit upon it. And I can read it to you. It's the one clue to his identity.

This is actually in a literary gossip column from the Manchester Times for May 14, 1864. By the way, I love the idea that there could have been a literary gossip column.

SIMON: Yeah, those days are gone, yeah.

Mr. COLLINS: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COLLINS: And it's just a single sentence. It reads: It is understood that "Velvet Lawn," by Charles Felix, the new novel announced by Saunders, Otley and Company, is by Mr. Charles Warren Adams, now the sole representative of the firm.

So the reason there was no correspondence between the publisher and the author...

SIMON: Oh, because he is the...

Mr. COLLINS: He is the author.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Yes. He's the publisher and the author.

Mr. COLLINS: Yeah.

SIMON: Oh my.

Paul Collins, our literary detective. His essay on "The Notting Hill Mystery" appears tomorrow in the Sunday New York Times.

Paul, thanks so much for clearing this mystery up.

Mr. COLLINS: Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here.

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