I was sitting on a couch in the Library of my Unitarian Universalist Church a while back, chatting with a couple of friends (waving at Caly and Mor), when one of us, I can’t remember who, asked when the first detective novel came out. (We often discuss books.)
Back before the internet, we’d have probably said, “Good question”, and then went on to other topics. Before the internet, you’d have had to have done some serious digging at your public library, and let’s face it, most of the time you’d have not gotten around to it. Yes, there was once a time when humans were much more capable of tolerating unanswered questions.
But this is not that time. A quick Google search came up with the answer, in the form of an NPR interview entitled, “Who Wrote The First Detective Novel?” Pretty straightforward.
The short answer to that is: Charles Felix. The book was “The Notting Hill Mystery”. It first came out in a weekly magazine, in 8 installments, in 1863. It was later published as a book in 1865, right as the Civil War was ending in America. Pure coincidence, but interesting.
The book caused quite a stir, because the genre didn’t exist at the time. People didn’t know what to make of it. It was described as a kind of literary puzzle that you had to solve.
The book includes elements that we now consider standard tropes for detective novels. Someone dies under mysterious circumstances. It comes to light that someone else has taken out a life insurance policy on that person. The insurance company wants to get to the bottom of it. The perfect crime is revealed before your reading eyes.
But here’s what’s really mysterious about the book. The author. Charles Felix was a pseudonym. And the NPR interviewee has finally figured out who the guy is after about a century and a half.
After discovering that there is absolutely no correspondence between the author and the publishing company, he finds a one sentence reveal in an obscure literary gossip column. The reason there’s no correspondence is that the author IS the publishing company. Charles Felix is Charles Warren Adams, the only person who works at Saunders, Otley and Company, the publisher of the book.
So, and I’m just speculating here, but maybe this is also one of the first self-published books. Wouldn’t that be cool? You can still get copies of The Notting Hill Mystery on Amazon. If you read it, tell me what you think in the comments below!
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