The Dead Letter and The Figure Eightby Metta Fuller Victor
Before Raymond Chandler, before Dorothy Sayers or Agatha Christie, there was Metta Fuller Victor, the first American author—man or woman—of a full-length detective novel. This novel, The Dead Letter, is presented here along with another of Victor’s mysteries, The Figure Eight. Both written in the 1860s and published under the name Seeley Regester, these novels show how—by combining conventions of the mystery form first developed by Edgar Allan Poe with those of the domestic novel—Victor pioneered the domestic detective story and paved the way for generations of writers to follow.
In The Dead Letter, Henry Moreland is killed by a single stab to the back. Against a background of post–Civil War politics, Richard Redfield, a young attorney, helps Burton, a legendary New York City detective, unravel the crime. In The Figure Eight, Joe Meredith undertakes a series of adventures and assumes a number of disguises to solve the mystery of the murder of his uncle and regain the lost fortune of his angelic cousin.
“From the very beginning women writers have been of fundamental importance to the mystery genre and these highly entertaining works by two of the founding ‘mothers’ of the American mystery novel demonstrate why. Times may have changed since these books were first published, but good reading never goes out of fashion.”—Dean James, coauthor of By a Woman's Hand: A Guide to Mystery Fiction by Women and manager of Murder by the Book (Houston, Texas)
“Sinister governesses sleepwalk, wronged young men vow revenge, and mysterious deathbed messages appear in two rediscovered Gothic gems from Metta Fuller Victor. Fans of Louisa May Alcott's thrillers will devour these inventive tales from a pioneer in American detective fiction.”—Elizabeth Foxwell, mystery writer and contributing editor, Mystery Scene magazine
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The Dead Letter, & the Figure Eight
By Metta Victoria Fuller Victor
Duke University PressCopyright © 2003 Metta Victoria Fuller Victor
All right reserved.
IntroductionCATHERINE ROSS NICKERSON
The two novels presented here are foundational, but long-forgotten, works in the history of American detective fiction. Fans, collectors, and literary historians almost universally point to Edgar Allan Poe as the inventor of the detective story, and most go on to trace the development of the detective novel in the work of British writers like Wilkie Collins, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Agatha Christie. They tend to return to the American scene only with the arrival of the hard-boiled style in the 1920s, a violent, minimalist aesthetic most fully expressed in the work of Dashiell Hammett. What this history of detective fiction overlooks is the fact that between the 1860s and the 1920s the detective novel flourished in the United States-in the hands of women writers. Metta Fuller Victor was the first writer, male or female, to produce full-length detective novels in the United States with the publication of The Dead Letter in 1867 and The Figure Eight in 1869. Those novels, which blended several popular genres with the central plot of murder and its investigation, influenced other writers, especially Anna Katharine Green, who was the mostsuccessful author of detective novels in the postbellum period. Green in turn influenced many women writers, creating an identifiable tradition of women's detective fiction that extends well into the twentieth century. The close association of that tradition with an earlier body of popular women's writing, the domestic novel of the 1850s, produced a style we can call domestic detective fiction because of its distinctive interest in moral questions regarding family, home, and women's experience.
We do not have a great deal of information on the life of Metta Fuller Victor, though we do have her prolific legacy of fiction. Born in 1831, she grew up in Pennsylvania and Ohio and attended a female seminary. She began to write poetry as a teenager, often with her sister Frances Fuller, and the two published a volume of poetry when Metta Fuller was twenty. She went on to a remarkable career in the dime novel and was successful in several genres for both children and adults: the western, the romance, temperance novels, and rags-to-riches tales. She wrote relatively little under her own name and chose different pseudonyms for different genres, a practice that allowed her to develop a following among several sectors of readers. When she was twenty-five, she married Orville Victor, editor of Beadle and Adams, and it seems fair to say that she built the Beadle empire of publications with him. She was editor of Beadle's Home and Beadle's Monthly, in which The Dead Letter first appeared in serial form in 1866. Victor was best known for an abolitionist dime novel (which she published under her own name) called Maum Guinea and Her Plantation "Children" (1861). Alongside this highly productive career in letters, she raised nine children. In 1876 she published Passing the Portal, a book that purports to be an autobiography but is quite frustrating to would-be biographers since it conforms remarkably closely to the conventions of domestic fiction and not to the facts we do know about her life.
Her career enriches our picture of the cultural place of popular fiction at midcentury, for she was both a skilled operator within the cheap, popular market and a serious-minded moral reformer, writing vehement fictional and editorial pieces against slavery, alcohol, and Mormon polygamy. In the mid-nineteenth century, the celebrity female author emerged as an increasingly significant figure, with the polemical Harriet Beecher Stowe, the dramatic E. D. E. N. Southworth, and the wry Louisa May Alcott as leading lights. Victor worked both the domestic reform and the (more daring) thriller angles open to women writers in this period. The way that she published fiction on reform-movement themes under her own name and other less reputable genres under pseudonyms shows that her solution to the limitations of the literary market was similar to that of Alcott, whose numerous pseudonymous thrillers have only recently been reconnected to an author known as "the Children's friend." Yet Victor does not seem to have been nearly as secretive as Alcott; moreover, with her position of power at Beadle and Adams, she had more control over the content and publication of her own work. Indeed, we have to understand her as a publisher and editor as well as an author, someone very close to the commercial meaning of popularity, on the one hand, and, on the other, the power of literature to strike a chord of sympathy or social outrage. In her detective fiction, her main purpose is to entertain, yet we also see striking reflections of the historical and cultural concerns of the immediate postbellum period.
Victor wrote The Dead Letter and The Figure Eight under the pseudonym of Seeley Regester. In each, she takes the apparatus of the detective story Poe set forth in the "tales of ratiocination" of the 1840s (namely, "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," "The Purloined Letter," "The Mystery of Marie Roget," and "The Gold-Bug") and expands it into a full-length novelistic form. As far as we can ascertain, she is the first American writer, male or female, to do so. (Interestingly, Alcott employs a semiparodic version of Poe's Auguste Dupin in her 1865 thriller "V. V., or Plots and Counterplots," but the story does not have the requisite structure and plot elements to function as detective fiction.) The basic narrative structure that Poe established, and that all writers since have worked from, is a doubled one, according to the narrative theorist Tzvetan Todorov. The narrative that we follow as readers is the story of an investigation and features the detective in a starring role. It commences with the discovery of a corpse or corpses and proceeds through the gathering of physical evidence, interviewing of witnesses, identification of suspects, and revelation of the murderer. Below the surface of the novel is another story-the story of the murder-including the motives, methods, coverup, and subsequent murders connected to the first. The main job of the detective is to reconstruct the story of the murder, a story deliberately fragmented and buried by the murderer, who will be identified and punished as soon as the true story is known. In the paradigm that Poe laid down, the detective story is a battle of wits between the brilliant detective and the devious criminal, and its great pleasure is the "aha!" moment when we watch the detective name the murderer and explain the chain of intellectual processes by which he came to know the answer to an enigma.
As the brevity of Poe's stories suggests, he first conceived the detective story, for all its structural sophistication, as a concentrated form. Victor brought a very different aesthetic to the story of criminal investigation, that of the popular women's novel of the nineteenth century. The style of domestic fiction includes amore leisurely pace, with the narrator's voice lingering over details of setting, dress, behavior, and, most importantly, emotion. Structurally, Victor's two detective novels have the same doubled narrative as Poe's stories, but they also include subplots and narratorial devices that delay the unfolding of the investigation narrative considerably. The most striking deviation from Poe's formula is the way that the narrative of The Dead Letter opens in the middle of the investigation, when Richard Redfield is at his lowest point emotionally. He has just discovered an important clue in the case of Henry Moreland's murder, but we readers are entering so fully in medias res that we cannot grasp its significance in the plot of the investigation. The effect of this opening strategy is to train our attention on the emotional state of the detective and on the psychological effects of investigating a criminal mystery. The pleasures of reading Victor's detective fiction are rather different from those offered by Poe's stories; they are the kind illuminated by the literary critic Peter Brooks, who explores the ways in which storytelling contains both a drive toward closure and a resistance to premature ending. Rather than pushing forward to the moment when the masterly detective will reveal all, Victor's novels draw us into narrative structures of delay, reversal, and false leads, all of which allow us to experience the emotional intensity of a household living out the aftermath of violent crime.
In Victor's hands, the detective story becomes a more moral form, shaped by the domestic novel's interest in sentiment and in the problems of the middle-class home. Each of her detectives is a young man who is a member of the household under investigation, is romantically entangled with a woman in the case, and becomes a suspect even as he attempts to solve the crimes. The fact that each novel is narrated by this detective figure reinforces the focus on the psychological and emotional aspects of crime, thus making a moral critique of the far-reaching effects of violent events. By itself, this shift of emphasis is striking in comparison with the more cool and intellectual interest of Poe's stories. But Victor embeds more significant social critique in her fiction by locating treachery and murder within the domestic realm, among people connected by familial and social ties. Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" includes a scene of murder within a domestic setting, but the perpetrator is a complete outsider, not only to the household but even to the human race. In the domestic detective tradition that Victor established, the murderer is almost always someone intimately related to the household. This person is therefore a hypocrite in addition to anything else he or she may be (killer, thief, blackmailer), and investigation of such a criminal requires special insight. To unmask hypocrisy in the privileged classes, the detective has to have an insider's sensibility. Victor pointedly explains that Detective Burton may work cases for the police, but comes from the business class, not the police ranks. She reinforces the importance of the insider-detective in domestic detective fiction with her use of Redfield and Meredith, both rising young professionals. She remakes the idea of the detective in fiction and asserts that his place is really in the home, investigating those who seem to be above reproach. Victor and the writers who adopted her style depict the domestic world of the middle and upper classes not as an impregnable refuge from the rough-and-tumble values of the capitalist market but as a place under constant threat of corruption by the evils of greed, ambition, and selfishness.
Of course, these novels were meant to entertain. Both novels in this volume celebrate the joy of escapade and include a number of adventures only tangentially related to the investigative plot. Events like the trips to Mexico and California in The Dead Letter and the search for missing gold in The Figure Eight are part of the structure of pleasurable delay but are also features of the boys' adventure stories that Victor wrote under other names. Both novels also include several elements from the gothic novel, including the haunted house, the clairvoyant child, and the grieving widow-bride of The Dead Letter and the tower room and sleepwalking governess of The Figure Eight. The gothicism may come as a surprise to some readers, but it probably should not if we recall the blood relation of detective fiction and gothic horror in Poe's work. The gothic mode is always oscillating between the concealment of secrets and their dramatic revelation, and we can think of detective fiction as a more rationalized patterning of the same concerns.
The generic blend that makes up these novels-domestic fiction, detective story, adventure story, gothic tale-raises questions about audience that are not easy to decide. The Dead Letter was published between hard covers with a price tag of fifty cents, indicating that the publishers felt that the book's primary audience was affluent enough to afford something considerably more expensive than a dime novel. The emphasis in the novels on the concerns of the moneyed classes and the valorization of the rising professional as moral arbiter of their problems all seem to invite the middle-to-upper-class reader more warmly than any other kind. Still, the range of genres in the novels and the inclusion of sympathetic marginal figures like Leesy Sullivan and Joe Meredith himself would allow points of entry for readers of both sexes and several class positions.
The Dead Letter features a detective who is markedly different from Poe's rational expert and from real detectives in the postbellum period. Burton's history as a businessman and his disgust with judicial corruption clearly distinguish him from ordinary police detectives, who were considered a rather scurrilous bunch. According to Larry Hartsfield and Marcus Klein, in this period private detectives were contracted by local police departments; they solved crimes like theft and murder by the use of extensive networks of criminal informants and by personal knowledge of the whereabouts and habits of criminals. The line between lawmen and outlaws was often blurred, something that the citizenry felt keenly when detectives expected tips for returning stolen property (and thieves also felt when asked to pay off the detective to avoid prosecution). Victor's desire to create a more heroic detective accounts for Burton's sense of moral mission, his refusal of any fee from the Argylls, and even his ability to follow criminals invisibly and without becoming part of their world.
Young Redfield, who becomes an active assistant to Burton in the case involving his employer's family, can also rightly be called a detective figure. Victor's use of a lawyer as protagonist puts her novel in a tradition of stories established in the antebellum period, those about gentlemen lawyers who uphold the most idealistic vision of the function of the law even at personal and financial cost. As Maxwell Bloomfield argues, the gentleman lawyer distinguishes himself from the entrenched establishment, which is complacent and occasionally dishonest, and from the young go-getters, whose ambition or greed allows them to ignore their obligations to the weak and unprotected. Redfield, however, does not do any actual lawyering in this novel, and the work Victor (via Burton) assigns him is more about the gathering of information than about the interpretation of the law.
More specifically, the detectives in this novel are mainly concerned with the erotic entanglements of the household. Without revealing too much detail, I wish to point the reader's attention to the love triangles that converge on various members of the Argyll household. Burton and Redfield need to understand jealousy and desire in an encompassing way before they can make any headway in solving the case. Indeed, in this novel detective work resembles social work more than hard science, and the detectives must intervene in some of the less savory erotic trajectories of the plot. Redfield, in particular, is deeply enmeshed in the plots of love and ambition that lead to murder, and part of his appeal is his ability to rise above the snares of his enemies. If The Dead Letter is largely about sentiment and ambition as opposing forces, we do see them worked out in the happy have-everything ending of the novel, about which I will maintain a polite silence. In any case, Victor's novel is remarkably sanguine about the effects of surveillance on professional-class domestic life-at least as long as the detective comes from that same social class.
Excerpted from The Dead Letter, & the Figure Eight by Metta Victoria Fuller Victor Copyright © 2003 by Metta Victoria Fuller Victor. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Metta Fuller Victor (1831–1885) was a publisher, editor, author, and moral reformer. She is perhaps best known for her abolitionist dime novel Maum Guinea and Her Plantation “Children” (1861). Matching different pseudonyms to different genres, she published popular works for children and adults—including mysteries, Westerns, romances, temperance novels, and rags-to-riches tales. She wrote numerous pieces against slavery, alcohol, and Mormon polygamy.
Catherine Ross Nickerson is Associate Professor of English at Emory University. She is the author of The Web of Iniquity: Early Detective Fiction by American Women, also published by Duke University Press.
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