Do the First British Detective Novel and the First American Detective Novel Feature Occult Detectives?

Unearthing the UnearthlyCharles Felix’s The Notting Hill Mystery (1862) has been cited as the very first detective novel. Ever. Given the challenges of pinpointing such things, it’s safer to call it the first detective novel written in English or even the first British detective novel. More to the point, though, is its use of supernatural elements. J. F. Norris reviewed this novel for Mystery*File in 2010. He makes note of a “truly weird or supernatural element,” namely, a character’s clairvoyant connection with another character. Norris adds that one of the novel’s three murders “can only be classified as supernatural.” As such, the novel’s detective, Ralph Henderson, investigates a crime interwoven with occult realities.  Does this, then, qualify him as an occult detective?

Afterward comes Seeley Regester’s The Dead Letter (1866), considered to be the first American detective novel. It’s importance goes further: some point to it as the first detective novel penned by a woman. However, in The Dead Witness:  A Connoisseur’s Collection of Victorian Detective Stories, Michael Sims refutes the notion that The Dead Letter should be considered a real detective novel at all:

Regester’s detective, Mr. Burton, relies on the psychic visions of his daughter. . . . Supernatural or psychic detection has a long history, but it is a category of its own; the intrusion of such irrational plot elements disqualifies The Dead Letter from consideration as a true detective novel.

Seeley Regester, the pen name of Metta Victoria Fuller Victor (1831-1885)

Sims is using the ratiocinative detective as his baseline, which might be too pat a method to toss “true” detective novels and “false” ones into separate piles. Regardless, Mr. Burton’s reliance on clairvoyance moves him closer to occult detectives such as Alymer Vance, whose sidekick Dexter is clairvoyant, or John Silence who has psychic abilities himself. In fact, Burton also has a strange ability to sense when a criminal is nearby, a skill he cannot fully explain: “there is about me a power not possessed by all — call it instinct, magnetism, clairvoyance, or remarkable nervous and mental perception.” Can we, then, count Mr. Burton as one of the occult detectives, since he lives in a world where the supernatural is reality, not deception?

Both novels join more clear-cut occult detective fiction in challenging the ratiocinative detective’s conviction that mysteries can be explained with empirical study, with logical reasoning, with — in a word — Science! The supernatural elements of The Notting Hill Mystery and The Dead Letter imply that strict scientific paradigms fail to encompass the realities of life and death. Henderson and Burton are presented as being wise enough to accept that, when it comes to catching criminals, one must consider violations of Newton’s Laws along with those of society. That is at the heart of my definition of an occult detective.

Therefore, my answer is, yes, both Henderson and Burton are occult detectives. And both of these important characters can be found on my Chronological Bibliography of Early Occult Detectives.


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