The Dead Letter (1866) Spotlight
About the Novel
While the celebrated fictional British detective Sherlock Holmes, or hard-boiled detectives in American pulp fiction of the 1920s and 1930s, are well known today, Victor’s The Dead Letter is actually the first full-length American detective novel.
When young Henry Moreland, the scion of a leading local family, is brutally murdered by a killer who vanishes leaving no clues, his fiancé, Eleanor Argyll, and her family are destroyed by grief and suspicion. Thus the readers of Metta Victor’s detective tale are caught up in the widening whirlpool of fear and distrust as is Mr. Argyll’s legal protégé, Richard Redfield. As Redfield watches his cherished adopted family lose their faith in him, and senses the loss of the warm family life he values dearly, he finds himself working with a New York Detective, Mr. Burton, whose effectiveness is legendary, but whose techniques and use of clairvoyance make Redfield question what is real and what is not. Redfield must also question the motives of both family and friends and seek the real killer—to save both himself and the future well-being of the Argyll family.
In tone and style The Dead Letter might well be mistaken for a sentimental domestic novel popular in the mid-nineteenth century. A feature of the sentimental novel was that both men and women find their true happiness at home within the domestic circle. We see this in Redfield who delights in being an intimate of the Argyll family and whose life is upended when suspicions that he is the murderer force him out of the house and the family circle. But this novel is distinctly in the category of detective fiction with its murder, a plot driven by solving the crime, and the introduction of a professional detective. Victor deliberately blended the popular sentimental style she had already mastered with a full-length detective story. But while later authors made their detectives famous by featuring them in numerous stories, Victor may have inadvertently undermined her long-term recognition as the creator of the genre by sharing a glimpse into Burton’s future, in which he is killed by his enemies. And, unfortunately for her place in the history of the genre, ensuring there would no sequels in which to secure her reputation as a founding author.
The House of Beadle and Adams states that The Dead Letter was first published in 1864, based on a statement from the publisher, but this claim is hard to substantiate. The first well-recognized appearance is in January 1866 in Beadle's Monthly, when the story was published serially from January to August. It was first collected in one volume in Popular Fifty Cent Books no. 1 on September 15, 1866, and was later reprinted in book form and in story papers many times, such as its appearance in The Fireside Library no. 44 in 1878.
- Think of the mystery and detective tales you have known and enjoyed. Are many of them written by women? Why might it be important that this foundational work was written by a female author? What are our expectations now about who should write in a particular genre? Might the expectations have been different in the nineteenth century?
- Metta Victor used nearly a dozen different pen names when she published. Why might she and her publisher, Beadle and Adams, have decided to publish The Dead Letter using the pen name Seeley Register? Why would any one author need to have so many different pen names?
- The author is creating a new genre as she writes, and though it begins with a brutal crime, and follows young Redfield’s efforts to solve it, she also spends a significant amount of time portraying the home life of both the protagonist, and those around him, such as his mentor Mr. Argyll and Detective Burton. Why do you think she describes home and family life in such detail?
- What kind of feelings did you experience as you read the book? Did the writing create a mood for you? How would you describe your emotional reaction and do you think the author was creating a specific mood intentionally?
- You could argue there are actually two detectives in the story, the lawyer Mr. Redfield, who becomes an amateur detective, and Mr. Burton who is already a professional detective. Who do you think is the real detective in the story? Which one of them is more effective as they search and why?
- When Victor portrayed encounters with working class characters, she wrote their dialogue in what she fashioned as their own dialect. For example, when the housekeeper, Mrs. Scott, shares her fears of a ghost in the house: “You can talk your big words, for you are an edicated man, Mr. Redfield, but you can’t convince me against my own persuasion. It’s been no human being has mussed that spread….Besides, how did they get in? Can you tell me that? Through the keyhole, mebbe, and went out the same way!” Why do you think she did that? How did you feel when you read it? What does it say about class in the nineteenth century? And what does it mean that characters, such as the lawyers, judges, and other professionals in the novel, speak in a very different fashion?
- Metta Victor was widely read in the mid-nineteenth century and wrote several titles that reached what we would call today “bestseller” status. Discuss your ideas about why she is not widely taught in literature and history courses today.
- How are the women in the novel portrayed? What are the differences that you can see between the women of the upper-class Argyll family, Eleanor and her sister, Mary, and the working-class women, such as Mrs. Scott and the seamstress Leesy Sullivan?
Metta Victor, perhaps because of her popularity and success, and her gender, has slipped through the cracks of literary scholarship. To understand her work one must read it and then turn to scholarship on the period, such as the development of the genres of detective and sentimental fiction, the development of the cheap fiction industry, and the role reading played in new class identities in nineteenth century America.
- Brown, Gillian. Domestic Individualism: Imagining Self in Nineteenth-Century America. University of California Press, 1990.
Brown takes on the dichotomy between “classic” works of American “greats” such as Emerson and Poe, who are well known to students today, and female writers who went over a century with no critical acclaim. She explores why the work of America’s female authors have been ignored. While she does not address Metta Victor directly, her exploration of nineteenth-the century American literature and its connection to a new sense of self in America, and the rise of and role of domestic ideology, shows the domestic elements in The Dead Letter in a new light and helps explain why women’s writing, while foundational, was not accepted into the cannon of “great” American Literature.
- John G. Cawelti. Adventure, Mystery and Romance: Formula Stories as Art and Popular Culture. University of Chicago Press, 1976.
A classic, foundational review of category fiction. Since Victor combined all three of these genres into The Dead Letter, this exploration of these approaches to fiction is helpful for the reader who wants to learn more about the types of fiction her story helped create.
- Denning, Michael. Mechanic Accents: Dime Novels and Working Class Culture in America. Haymarket, 1998.
Denning explores how the development of cheap fiction, coupled with an explosion in literacy, opened up reading to more Americans and helped develop a new market for cheap fiction. Denning argues, in turn, that these changes turned fiction reading into a class issue. His is one of the most in-depth studies of dime novels and is a must for anyone who wants to learn more about popular fiction in the nineteenth century.
- Nickerson, Catherine Ross. "Introduction." The Dead Letter & The Figure Eight. Duke University Press, 2003.
Nickerson’s introduction to the reprints of Victor’s detective stories provides a quick, insightful introduction to these two detective novels by Metta Victor and their unique features.
- Watson, Kate Women. Writing Crime Fiction, 1860–1880: Fourteen American, British and Australian Authors. Jefferson, McFarland & Company, Inc., 2012.
This is a series of case studies of 14 women writing in English who were instrumental is creating and developing crime fiction. The authors covered include several women associated with “dime novel fiction,” including Mary Elizabeth Braddon and Metta Victoria Fuller Victor.
- Johannsen, Albert. The House of Beadle & Adams. University of Oklahoma Press, 1950.
- Papashvily, Helen. All the Happy Endings: A Study of the Domestic Novel in America. Harper & Brothers, 1956.
- Parham, Katharine. “Metta Victoria Fuller Victor.” Nineteenth-Century American Women Writers, edited by Denise Knight. Greenwood Press, 1997.
- Taylor, William. "Metta Victoria Frances Fuller.” Notable American Women: 1607-1950. Harvard University Press, 1971.