I learned about The Notting Hill Mystery (1862), written by Charles Felix (the psuedonym of Charles Warren Adams), from a review written by J.F. Norris. Norris is a mystery aficionado who has suggested to me some of the more obscure works now on my list. Notting Hill is especially important because of its prominent place in the history of mystery fiction: it is among the very first detective novels written in English. It’s also one of the key works of mystery fiction that presents a detective character who must come to accept supernatural involvement in order to solve the mystery. This, in brief, is my test for an occult detective.
In his review, Norris describes the book as “a detective novel and a true mystery,” one including a murder that “can only be classified as supernatural.” What I didn’t realize was how pivotal that supernatural murder is to the other events in the story. It depends on taking advantage of a link between twin girls that goes beyond the psychological, beyond even the psychic. As Felix clarifies early in the novel, the twins’ connection is downright physical. One of the case’s witnesses reports that “every little ailment that affects the one [sister] is immediately felt also by the other. . . . I have often heard of the strong physical sympathies between twins, but never met myself with so marked an instance.”
In a sense, the mystery explores how this connection might be exploited by an unsavory blackguard. Unfortunately — yet far from unprecedented in early mystery fiction — that unsavory blackguard is easy to spot. Kindly avoid looking to too closely at the Mesmerist with the penetrating eyes. You know, the fellow who, in the first quarter of the novel, inspires one of the twin sisters to write in her diary: “I don’t think he would have much compunction in killing any one who offended him, or stood in his way.”
Now, hypnotism is a scientifically validated phenomenon. But one could argue that its depiction here extends fairly far into the supernatural, though perhaps not quite as far as that bond between twins. That’s an element of this novel that might disappoint some readers hoping for fully formed occult detective fiction. Yes, there’s a proto-Svengali villain with sinister motives and esoteric knowledge, but there are no union-certified vampires or werewolves. Not even a tattered ghost dragging so much as a paper-clip chain.
Nonetheless, the detective character fits well with what I term a novice occult detective. In keeping with that category, Felix’s detective finds he must expand his understanding of reality to encompass what strict science would snub as impossible. A life insurance investigator, Ralph Henderson opens the presentation of his solution to the case by admitting that he’s out on a limb. The “Mesmeric Agency” so central to the crime is something he knows will be met with skepticism (as it is throughout the narrative). Still, he bravely advances it as “the only theory by which I can attempt, in any way, to elucidate this otherwise unfathomable mystery.” Instead of Special Agent Fox Mulder’s famous UFO poster with the slogan “I WANT TO BELIEVE,” insurance agent Henderson’s poster might read: “I’M FORCED TO BELIEVE.”
Let me close by saying that J.F. Norris’s blog Pretty Sinister Books is tailor-made for readers seeking mystery fiction they didn’t know they wanted to read. He discusses The Notting Hill Mystery and dozens, maybe hundreds, of other novels.