|Mary Elizabeth Braddon|
“The Mystery at Fernwood” and “Who Killed Zebedee?” are longer short stories (about forty and twenty-five pages, respectively; the latter is also known, more prosaically, as "Mr. Policeman and the Cook").
|Grandmother of Gothic fiction|
In this tale, a young woman finds not only mystery but grave menace when she visits Fernwood, the decaying Yorkshire country estate of her fiancee.
|Just the right spot for a murder....|
“Fernwood” is a rattlingly suspenseful tale (even if you pierce the veil of the mystery quickly, as you probably will) and a fine example of the grand and hallowed Gothic tradition that has extended right up to this day in such mystery genre works as Barbara Vine’s The Minotaur (2005).
Suspicion immediately falls on Zebedee’s wife, a somnambulist. People fearing a repetition of another Wilkie Collins tale that shall remain nameless will be pleased to see other suspects emerge among the company of lodgers, most obviously the dandified Mr. Deluc. Desirous of helping the law is the nosy elderly spinster Miss Mybus, an interesting early incarnation of a mystery genre character type most strongly associated today with Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple.
|In "Who Killed Zebedee?" nosy, elderly Miss Mybus|
anticipates Miss Marple by nearly half a century
To be blunt, “Zebedee” is more luckstone than Moonstone. Collins is more interested here in exploring character, however, and he does this very well indeed, even providing a surprisingly ambivalent ending in the modern fashion.
The only novel among these three works is Devlin the Barber, a potent admixture of mystery and horror elements authored by the prolific novelist Benjamin Farjeon (also father of, in addition to Jefferson, Eleanor Farjeon, the beloved children’s book writer).
Luridly advertised on London billboards with an illustration of a young woman bloodily stabbed by a seeming maniac, the book appeared the same year as the Jack the Ripper serial killings horrified England (what are considered to be the "canonical" Ripper murders took place in 1888 between the dates of August 31 and November 9; Farjeon’s work appeared in serial and book form later that year). Devlin the Barber seems quite obviously to draw on the Ripper killings, as well as the gruesome folk legend of Sweeney Todd, the demon barber.
|Sweeney Todd: like Jack the Ripper|
a clear influence on Devlin the Barber
Despite its obvious linkage with Jack the Ripper, Devlin opens with only one slaying, that of a proper, middle class young woman who for some reason was keeping a secret late-night assignation. After she is found fatally stabbed, it is learned that her twin sister has disappeared (twins were quite popular in crime books before the stricter rules-making Golden Age frowned on them).
The young ladies’ wealthy uncle, lately returned from Australia, for no particularly compelling reason offers the narrator of the tale, an out-of-work, middle-class friend of the family, a grand sum to solve the case (naturally he has no faith in the police being able to do it).
The narrator soon finds that the murdered woman had a gentleman friend, but he seems like a winning young man (he is even wealthy and has a responsible guardian). The most striking event occurs, however, when the narrator is called upon for help by his former nursemaid, Mrs. Lemon (could this have been the mother of Hercule Poirot’s future secretary?!). It seems Mrs. Lemon has a very odd lodger indeed, a barber named Mr. Devlin….
|Could the mother of Hercule Poirot's secretary|
have encountered Devlin the Barber?
More could be said about this fascinating novel, but I will leave the reader to seek out the book for herself. I will simply add that, in contrast with some lesser Victorian tales of sensation, the narrative throughout Devlin the Barber is smooth and idiomatic, a reader’s delight. Even the cry of the murdered woman’s beloved is not nearly so melodramatic as the contrived speeches one often finds, for example, in the works of the noted American mystery writer Anna Katharine Green:
"Neither will I rest till I discover the murderer of my darling girl! And when I discover him, when he stands before me, as there is a living God, I will kill him with my own hands!”
As the plaint of a grieving young Victorian-era man it rings true to me.
The long section of narrative that Farjeon gives to Mrs. Lemon is especially impressive. Like the better-known Braddon and Collins, Farjeon was an effective spinner of tales; and he very much deserves at least a modest revival.
Anyone wanting a good murder story from the Victorian era is advised to seek out these works by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Wilkie Collins and Benjamin Farjeon. They may be old, but they still speak to us today. During the last decade “The Mystery at Fernwood” and “Who Killed Zebedee?” have been reprinted in attractive editions by Hesperus Press, an admirable publisher of shorter literary classics. Devlin the Barber merits inclusion in this eminent company of Victorian writers.
|Did you catch his name?...|