The British Library is, as everyone knows or should know, one of the finest institutions in the world with a wonderful collection of books and helpful staff in the reading rooms, fascinating exhibitions, a superlatice collection of stamps for those who find the subject interesting (alas, TH seems to have got over that particular obsession some years ago) and a publishing arm of some distinction.
In particular, Tory Historian has been overjoyed by the Library's decision to reprint detective stories from the Victorian period and, more recently, from what is known as the Golden Age that have been forgotten by all except a few historians of the genre. It may be added that not a few of the better known "historians" who are constantly interviewed and commissioned to write articles on the subject know very little beyond the best known authors. But that is another and more painful story that requires at least one separate article.
In the circumstances, the British Library is doing us all a favour by publishing books that are of importance in the history of the genre but have fallen into a literary memory hole.
The Notting Hill Mystery by Charles Warren Adams is, contrary to popular assumptions about Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone the first detective novel, having been serialized in Once A Week in 1862 - 3. In other words it predates both The Moonstone and Emile Gaboriau's first M. Lecoq novel, published in 1869 in two volumes, though Gaboriau's L'Affaire Lerouge was serialized in 1863. Anyway, the British Library has now republished The Notting Hill Mystery and everyone can start making comparisons with the better known novels.
Structurally it is not dissimilar from The Moonstone in that it is a collection of depositions from various people who were involved in greater or lesser degree in the nefarious dealings of the sinister Baron R ___, who is suspected of murdering his wife. The story starts some years before with the birth in particularly shocking and tragic circumstances of twin girls. The evidence is collected painstakingly by Ralph Henderson, an insurance investigator, the very personification, one might say, of the genre and of the investigating detective, being a middle class professional gentleman who is used to collecting evidence in a painstaking manner.
Sadly, Tory Historian, a great fan of Wilkie Collins's works and not only of the best known two novels and one story (The Biter Bit, which is frequently anthologized), did not find Charles Warren Adams's book fascinating though it ws, quite as good as either The Moonstone or The Woman in White, perhaps because the story was a little too obvious and too sensational (very much of its time) and, more to the point, the characters did not shine the way Collins's do. For all of that, The Notting Hill Mystery is very well worth reading by anyone who has the slightest interest in the history of detective novels or sensational literature and by anyone who might be interested in the history of that area of West London.
The British Library has also reprinted the three earliest collections of adventures by women detectives, who are employed as such, sometimes privately as in Mr Bazalgette's Agent, sometimes by the police or in a private capacity as in The Female Detective and the one TH has read, Revelations of a Lady Detective.
This collection of adventures belongs more to the Victorian sensational novels than to the detective fiction as developed by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his rivals and successors of the Golden Age but Mrs Paschal, the heroine/narrator does display great abilities of ratiocination as well as a determined attitude towards the catching of criminals and the claiming of whatever reward might be offered. In the first story she resolutely discards her crinoline (described by her as hateful) in order to pursue the criminal; in others she unhesitatingly disguises herself even as a possible novice in a nunnery run by a very sinister Abbess.
Of the available Golden Age detective fiction Tory Historian has read two by John Bude (pseudonym of Ernest Carpenter Elmore), both introduced by a present-day practitioner of the art and highly knowledgeable historian of the genre, Martin Edwards, The Lake District Murder and The Cornish Coast Murder.
The latter of these was, in fact, published first though both came out in 1935. They were slightly unusual for the period in that they took place in very precisely described English locations, which was not London and not an imaginary county somewhere in the Midlands or the Home Counties. Both are very much of the Golden Age with clever mysteries and painstaking deduction, following up of clues and of various time tables. In fact, they belong to what might be called the Freeman Wills Crofts school of detective fiction but in Tory Historian's opinion John Bude was a better writer.
The Cornish Coast Murder is a mixture of police and amateur investigation, with Inspector Bigswell, a fairly intelligent police officer together with his subordinates and superiors representing officialdom and the Reverend Dodd, the local vicar and detective story addict together with his friend and fellow addict, the local doctor, representing the amateurs. On the whole, the amateurs win but the officials do not come out too badly.
The Lake District Murder introduces Inspector Meredith, who becomes Superintendent by the end of the book, largely in recognition of the way he solves the case in question. There are no amateurs and the work is done entirely by the police team, which appears to have a remarkably large manpower at its disposal.
Inspector Meredith is a likeable and hard-working chap with a long-suffering wife and an eager-beaver son who is apprenticed to a photographer but would probably like to go into the force himself. He has a good relationship both with his superiors and his underlings. In fact, there is a clear indication of police work requiring a team to achieve the desired result. It is, for instance, the Superintendent who understands how the murder was done though Meredith had worked out, following up clues and information provided by his staff, who had done it and why.
Having read The Lake District Murder, Tory Historian decided to try another novel by John Bude while waiting for The Cornish Coast Murder to make its way back to London Library. Such is the influence of the British Library reprints that only one Bude book could be found on the shelves, Death in Ambush, published in 1945 but one that clearly belongs to the inter-war period.
Unfortunately, this turned out to be greatly inferior. The writing is still witty and attractive (still better than Freeman Wills Crofts's) but the plot is considerably sillier than the one in the Lake District or, as it turned out, the one on the Cornish Coast. One murder method is very clever but the second one is complicated to the point of ridiculousness. The only reason nobody understands it to the very end is because there is no autopsy despite death being highly violent.
Superintendent Meredith is now in Scotland Yard and back to being Inspector; his wife has effaced herself almost as much as Inspector French's does in the Crofts series and there is no mention of the son at all.
He investigates the two crimes almost accidentally as he happens to be staying with his friend, the Watson of the book, a successful detective story writer, Aldous Barnet, who finds most of the clues and manages to elucidate the cause of the second murder. Meredith rushes around, accusing first one person then another of the crime and demanding an alibi from the accused. Otherwise, he says darkly over and over again, the prosecutor will make hay. The notion that it is he who has to produce the evidence does not seem to occur to anyone.
Eventually, the last person standing, so to speak, turns out to be Second Murderer (the first murder is sort of solved earlier in the book) and a couple of vital clues are discovered not to be revealed to the reader until the last explanation to Meredith's superiors.
In fact, something of a mess. Fortunately, The Cornish Coast Murder turned up and made up for Death in Ambush. The British Library is planning to reprint at least one more novel by John Bude. Let us hope it is more like the first two and not like the later one.
There will be further reports on the British Library Classic Crimes series.