The woman who wrote the first American crime (not detective) novel

May 23, 2018 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: fiction, journalism.

Metta Victoria Fuller Victor authored and published The Dead Letter in 1867. It is thought to be America’s first full crime novel. (Edgar Allan Poe’s stuff was short stories.) In its day, it was known as a sensation novel.

But it’s not America’s first detective novel.

The Dead Letter has a crime, of course. There is evidence. There are clues. The novel has a police detective — a clever one — and he had a daughter who is also clever in a different way. The detective has a backstory that explains why he’s there.

The problem, as LeRoy Lad Panek points out in his book, The Origins of the American Detective Story, is that the crime is not “solved” by the detective (or his daughter). It’s solved by an accidental discovery. Panek points out that in the pre-detective novel era of crime fiction or sensation novels, it wasn’t necessarily up to the detective to solve the crime. Something else was going on.

That something has a lot to do with the views of and attitudes toward criminals and justice that lie under these kinds of books. Crime and justice in a sensation novel depend on faith in a universe that is eventually and inevitably just and governed by providence: this goes back to the sure knowledge that “murder will out” that serves as the basis for what happens in century upon century of Western literature from Chaucer’s “Prioriss Tale” to MacBeth and Hamlet. (pp. 13-14)

It is the concept of “inevitable justice,” Paneck points out. Victorians and people before them did not need detectives. Truth, providentially, would always take over.

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