The Notting Hill Mystery Podcast - Secrecy, Mesmerism, and Manipulation
Welcome to The Notting Hill Mystery podcast episode from Tea, Tonic & Toxin!
The Notting Hill Mystery (1862-1863) is often called the first detective novel. In it, the wife of Baron R** dies after drinking acid. It looks like an accident until insurance investigator Ralph Henderson discovers that Baron R** took out several life insurance policies on her. From there, the plot continues to thicken.
Readers see everything Henderson sees, including letters, diary entries, witness interviews, a marriage certificate, and a map of the crime scene. The New York Times Book Review called The Notting Hill Mystery “both utterly of its time and utterly ahead of it.”
Estimated Reading Time: 5 hours. Share your thoughts and check out the questions below!
What We're Talking About in The Notting Hill Mystery Podcast
Had you ever heard of The Notting Hill Mystery before now? The story has all the elements of a gripping mystery, including poisoning, an evil hypnotist, a kidnapped girl, and a series of murders “in their nature and execution too horrible to contemplate.” What felt new? What felt dated? What kept you riveted, and what left you wanting more? And how might the story have been told differently if it were written today?
The forensic techniques used to gather, present, and analyze evidence in the story probably would have felt eye-opening to a 19th-century reading audience. Examples include diary entries, letters, and witness depositions. As the British Library notes, these innovative techniques “would not become common features of detective fiction until the 1920s.” Did the forensic feel of the book interest you? Bore you? Make you feel as if you were an investigator (or judge or jury member) yourself?
Police-Sergeant Edward Reading doesn’t miss a beat. He’s of the Inspector Bucket (Bleak House) and Inspector Cuff (The Moonstone) school of detection. Ralph Henderson, in turn, is a world-class insurance investigator (second only to Johnny Dollar). How might the methodologies Reading and Henderson use have influenced later detective stories?
How and why was Rosalie kidnapped? Did the baron really meet Rosalie by accident? Would the housemaid really have confessed to poisoning Rosalie to avoid being blamed for tasting (stealing) marmalade? How did you feel about so many unanswered questions?
When direct manipulation isn’t possible (due to questions of propriety), the baron tries second-hand manipulation with Rosalie’s help. In what ways does the investigator’s disdain for and disbelief in mesmerism ultimately enable him to build a strong case about mesmerism and the sympathy of twins?
Mrs. Anderton and those around her never talk about the kidnapping of her twin sister. Mrs. Anderton conceals the leaden taste in her mouth she experiences every two weeks. No one tells Rosalie she’s sleepwalking. The housemaid doesn’t tell anyone that she and her beau witnessed the baron in the lab. So many secrets …
The baron is a master of manipulation. Many people even sing his praises. How does he succeed at playing people without their knowing it? Why do some people see through him? Why are his machinations more effective with some than others?
What do you think about the book’s final line: “Supposing [a series of crimes was committed], are crimes thus committed susceptible of proof, or even if proved, are they of a kind for which the criminal can be brought to punishment?”
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