‘Metta Fuller Victor was the first writer, male or female, to produce full-length detective novels in the United States….’
There is something unearthly in the scream of the “steam-eagle,” especially when heard at night.
Indeed: a train roars into Peekskill, New York, and with it comes heartbreak.
Metta Fuller Victor evokes fear, anxiety, and above all, compulsive curiosity in The Dead Letter. Right at this remarkable novel’s outset, a blameless young man is found brutally murdered. Lives are upended; one in particular, devoured by grief, will never recover. It is left to others to solve this baffling crime.
Here the mansion lay, bathed in the rich sunshine; the garden sparkled with flowers as the river with ripples, so full, as it were, of conscious, joyous life, while the master of all lay in a darkened room awaiting his narrow coffin. Never had the uncertainty of human purposes so impressed me as when I looked abroad over that stately residence and thought of the prosperous future which had come to so awful a standstill.
I am much drawn to the loveliness and grace of this writing, and it is here present in abundance. If at times it shades into melodrama, no matter. The core sentiments are real and moving.
The edition pictured above comes from the Duke University Press; as you can see, it includes a second work by Victor, The Figure Eight. This I have not read yet but am greatly looking forward to doing so. I strongly recommend Catherine Ross Nickerson’s highly informative and enlightening introduction to this volume, from which the title of this post is taken. She offers this pithy summation of Victor’s life:
We do not have a great deal of information on the life of Metta Fuller Victor, though we do have her prolific legacy of fiction. Born in 1831, she grew up in Pennsylvania and Ohio and attended a female seminary. She began to write poetry as a teenager, often with her sister Frances Fuller, and the two published a volume of poetry when Metta Fuller was twenty.
She went on to a remarkable career in the dime novel and was successful in several genres for both children and adults: the western, the romance, temperance novels, and rags-to-riches tales. She wrote relatively little under her own name and chose different pseudonyms for different genres, a practice that allowed her to develop a following among several sectors of readers. When she was twenty-five, she married Orville Victor, editor of Beadle and Adams, and it seems fair to say that she built the Beadle empire of publications with him. She was editor of Beadle’s Home and Beadle’s Monthly, in which The Dead Letter first appeared in serial form in 1866. Victor was best known for an abolitionist dime novel (which she published under her own name) called Maum Guinea and Her Plantation “Children” (1861). Alongside this highly productive career in letters, she raised nine children.
As for Victor’s work, Nickerson is of the opinion that Victor was instrumental in
…creating an identifiable tradition of women’s detective fiction that extends well into the twentieth century. The close association of that tradition with an earlier body of popular women’s writing, the domestic novel of the 1850s, produced a style we can call domestic detective fiction because of its distinctive interest in moral questions regarding family, home, and women’s experience.
The Dead Letter held me from beginning to end. The characters were believable and sympathetic; the plot was elegantly constructed and at the same time gripping. As a window on a past world, it was particularly appealing.
Hard to believe that this eminently readable novel was published in 1867.