Poe is the undisputed (mostly) father of American detective fiction. He wrote three short stories featuring Inspector Auguste Dupin, and he wrote about detective fiction in a way that established many of the rules of the genre. Poe died at a tragically early age and was thus unable to develop his ideas. Indeed, he did not write a detective fiction novel.
That’s where Metta Victoria Fuller Victor comes in. During the middle of the 19th century, she was a prolific writer and editor, a mainstay of America’s developing literary scene. Writing under the name Seeley Regester, she produced what is thought to be the first American detective novel. Its title is The Dead Letter: An American Romance. Its publication date is listed as 1866, but it may have appeared as early as 1864.
Victor wrote at least four other mystery novels, all published before 1870.
Metta Victoria Fuller was born in Pennsylvania in 1831 and then moved with her family in 1839 to Wooster, Ohio. She and her sister Frances, also a writer, attended school in Wooster, and they both began their writing careers there by submitting stories to local newspapers and later to magazines.
Metta published her first book, Last Days of Tul: A Romance of the Lost Cities of Yucatán, when she was just a teenager. That book came out in 1847, and in 1851 she published a temperance novel titled The Senator’s Son. That book was so popular that it went through 10 editions.
Metta was supported in her writing career by Nathaniel Parker Willis, an influential editor of the New York Mirror.
In 1856 she married Orville James Victor, a newspaper editor in Sandusky, Ohio. During that time the publishing firm of Street & Smith’s New York Weekly offered her a contract of $25,000 for the exclusive rights to her stories during a five-year period.
Metta and her husband moved to New York in 1858, and there they had nine children. Despite the burdens of 19th century motherhood duties, she continued to write at a prolific rate. When her contract with Street & Smith’s New York Weekly ran out, she worked primarily for Beadle and Adams, and she published books in a variety of genres using nearly a dozen pen names.
One of her books, an 1861 novel, titled Maum Guinea, was an anti-slavery novel that was popular with thousands of readers, including Abraham Lincoln and Henry Ward Beecher.
In January 1866, Beadle’s Monthly began serializing The Dead Letter, and installments appeared for the next eight months. The novel was about a murder during which the family of the victim comes to suspect a friend of the family. The accused man works with a famous New York detective identified as “Mr. Burton” to solve the murder and prove his innocence.
Victor did not foresee the possibility that Burton could be a continuing character in subsequent novels. She notes in the novel that he will be killed soon after the novel ends. That oversight, according to scholars of the literature of that age, helped send her work into obscurity—an obscurity that has been only recently overcome.
Victor’s writing shifted often to keep up with the changing tastes of her reading public, and this ability kept her writing steadily for the next two decades until her death from cancer in 1885. She was only 54 years old.
So who did write the first American detective series? That would be Edgar Allan Poe, if you discount the fact that his detective was French and his stories were set in Paris. But what about the first American detective series written by an American author? The author was Harriet Spofford (right, another overlooked female author), and we will talk about her next week.
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