Reinstating Burton’s (Poetic) License
The Dead Letter was written by Seeley Regester, the pseudonym of Metta Fuller Victor, and first published in 1866. Its detective, Mr. Burton, is one of the founders of a line of diviner-detectives noted on my Chronological Bibliography of Early Occult Detectives. However, in The Dead Witness: A Connoisseur’s Collection of Victorian Detective Stories, Michael Sims takes a negative view of Burton, implying his standard-issue detective’s license should be revoked. Sims says,
Regester’s detective, Mr. Burton, relies on the psychic visions of his daughter. . . . Supernatural or psychic detection has a long history, but it is a category of its own; the intrusion of such irrational plot elements disqualifies The Dead Letter from consideration as a true detective novel.
I disagree with Sims’s suggestion that the novel leans too much on Burton’s clairvoyant daughter. While the whereabouts of a prime suspect is determined via this method, the value of this discovery is minimal, since that suspect continues to elude the detective afterward. When the psychic daughter is called upon again later, no results at all are gained. This method of discerning information, then, is far from pivotal to the solution to the mystery.
Learning to Trust a Hunch
Instead, the clairvoyance acts to encourage readers to consider what probably all occult detective fiction advocates: there’s more to our reality than “rational” investigative methods typically show. This thread of the story is established early, when Richard Redfield, the narrator, tries to sleep after learning of the murder victim. He’s in the house of the victim’s fiancée, and there’s a storm raging outside. “There was something awful in the storm,” he explains, adding, “If I had had a touch of superstition about me, I should have said that spirits were abroad.” In the next paragraph, he reacts to hearing something hitting the window, something other than raindrops: “Ah, my God! I knew afterward what it was. It was a human soul, disembodied, lingering about the place on earth most dear to it.” In a way, the novel is the story of young Redfield’s growth from skeptic to believer.
This is especially true in regard to Redfield’s trusting his own intuition. Along with having a blatantly clairvoyant daughter, Burton is himself very intuitive. At the novel’s conclusion, he explains that he has an ability that “enables me, often, to feel the presence of criminals, as well as of very good persons, poets, artists, or marked temperaments of any kind.” Only a few pages earlier, Redfield confesses that he, too, had sensed who the guilty party was, but “I had always tried to drive away the impression.” In that Burton acts as a sort of mentor to Redfield, it seems that trusting one’s gut is a key lesson for both the narrator and for readers.
Learning to Maintain Balance
But Regester keeps this idea of a psychic/supernatural reality in balance. Along the way, Redfield enlists Burton’s aid in probing what appears to be a haunted house. It turns out there’s a natural explanation to the spooky glow and noises, though — one connected to the murder mystery. In fact, other than the dicey use of clairvoyance, this novel is very much a straightforward murder mystery. Granted, there are some rather remarkable coincidences, but even here Regester attributes such things to a reality that exceeds the boundaries of science. As Redfield remarks in one such instance, “How curious are the ways of Providence! It seems as if I received help outside of myself.”
Just as interesting is how the detective character Burton seems to be a descendant of Henry William Herbert’s Dirk Ericson. Both characters are Americans, and while Herbert attributes his detective’s skills at tracking and at reading visual evidence to his being a frontiersman, Regester uses similar imagery to introduce Burton: “He was like an Indian on the trail of his enemy – the bent grass, the broken twig, the evanescent dew – which, to the uninitiated were ‘trifles light as air,’ to him were ‘proofs strong as Holy Writ.’”
Furthermore, on another page, I point out that patience stands out as a key characteristic of Ericson and at least one other fictional detective from his era. Over two decades later, Regester made a patient nature vital to the success of Mr. Burton, who declares, “I’ve told you my motto – ‘learn to wait,’ Richard. The gods will not be hurried.”
Sherlock Holmes’ Lineage?
Perhaps more surprisingly, some aspects of Mr. Burton suggest he’s an ancestor of no less than Mr. Sherlock Holmes. For instance, much as Holmes has made himself an expert in crime-related minutia such as the identification of various kinds of tobacco ash, Burton has refined his abilities in chirography, “the art of reading men and women from a specimen of their handwriting.” Furthermore, anyone who knows Holmes’ relationship to Irene Adler will recognize something in this passage from The Dead Letter regarding Mr. Burton’s past cases:
He who had brought hundreds of accomplished rogues to justice did not like to be foiled by a woman. Talking on the subject to me, as we sat before the fire in his library, with closed doors, he said the most terrible antagonist he had yet encountered has been a woman — that her will was a match for his own, yet he had broken with ease the spirits of the boldest men.
Perhaps, to Mr. Burton, she is always referred to as the woman.
For these reasons, I found The Dead Letter a very interesting read. Be warned that there is some stupid racism toward the end (e.g., “Not that all Spaniards are necessarily murderers — but their code of right and wrong is different from ours”). Nonetheless, the character development, the complex plot, the winding adventure, even the language being quite accessible for readers 150 years later all add to the pleasure of this novel. I recommend the Duke University Press reprint, which is edited by Catherine Ross Nickerson. Along with her useful introduction, this edition comes coupled with The Figure Eight, another of Seeley’s mysteries.