I cannot get enough of Victorian sensation novels. With mistaken identities, missing inheritances, mysterious disappearances, these stories were almost like the soap operas of their day (of course, unlike today’s version, these wrap up loose ends and have a relatively sensible plot).
The Argyll family and Richard Redfield, the oldest family friend, are awaiting the arrival of Henry Moreland one violently stormy night. Expected for dinner, the family makes note of train after train that trundle through town and yet Henry does not appear dripping on their doorstep. Morning brings the news that Henry’s body has been found upon the road from the station. He has been stabbed and left in a muddy puddle. Thus begins the investigation of a deadly mystery.
The narrator, Redfield, vows to find the murderer and after making some initial inquiries, teams up with noted investigator Mr. Burton. Burton is a highly confident, inscrutable character who keeps his techniques to himself. Indeed, fans of the genre will see similarities to the irascible Sergeant Cuff in The Moonstone. That novel is often considered the first work of detective fiction in the English language; The Dead Letter can be counted as the first American one.
“I have often noticed that one calamity is sure to be followed by another. If there is a railroad disaster, a powder-mill explosion, a steamer destroyed by fire, before the horror of the first accident has done thrilling our nerves, we are pretty certain to be startled by another catastrophe.”
“I, too,” said Mr. Burton, “have remarked the succession of events — echoes, as it were, following the clap of thunder. And I have usually found that, like the echoes, there was a natural cause of them.” ~ Pg. 58.
Redfield, disgraced by his failure at catching the killer, attempts to create for himself a new life. He finds a position at the Post Office in Washington, D.C. — in the Dead Letter Office. Itself a kind of detective work, Redfield goes through misdirected items of mail and tries to get them to their intended destination. He intercepts a lost missive related to the unsolved murder of his friend and the second act of the chase.
I truly enjoyed every page of this Victorian adventure. There is something distinctly American about it, familiar even. I’m excited to read the other classics waiting to be rediscovered from the shelves of the Library of Congress.
My thanks to Sourcebooks for the review copy.
Publisher: Poisoned Pen Press (June 15, 2021)
Paperback: 336 pages