Invisible Ink: No 116 - British Library Invisibles
Sunday 25 March 2012
A bit of a departure this week, to celebrate the British Library's championing of forgotten authors. The jewel in their crown is the republication of the world's first detective novel, The Notting Hill Mystery by Charles Warren Adams, which had been serialised in the magazine Once A Week between 1862 and 1863.
Until the crime expert Julian Symons mentioned it in 1972, the No 1 slot had always been taken by Wilkie Collins with The Moonstone, although Emile Gaboriau's L'Affaire Lerouge had been published in France in 1866. Edgar Allen Poe created C Auguste Dupin, but he only appeared in three short stories, and quite a few casebook reminiscences of various detectives turned up, but there were no complete novels. As is often the case, there was a groundswell of interest in this literary area before a star – Sherlock Holmes – emerged and was venerated above all others, and the rest were lost in the rush.
In its new incarnation, The Notting Hill Mystery proves innovative and cheerfully demented, as it is presented in the form of diary entries, family letters, witness interviews, a chemical analysis report and a crime scene map. Its hero is an insurance investigator building a case against a sinister baron, and the case incorporates kidnapping, acid poisoning, three murders, a dodgy mesmerist and – of course – a rich uncle's will, all embellished with George Du Maurier's illustrations. Charles Warren Adams was a journalist and lawyer who wrote under a pseudonym, and it's good to have him back.
The British Library's collection evolved over 250 years, with more than 150 million items including books, journals, manuscripts, music, photographs, patents, newspapers and recordings, so there's plenty of scope for rediscovering and repackaging rarities.
I'm keen on having a crack at porpoise with wheat porridge, a rare recipe from their culinary horror The Curious Cookbook, which offers up mashed potato sandwich, roasted peacock, viper soup, parrot pie with beef and lemon peel, and curried kangaroo tails, all dishes culled from the British Library stacks. Likewise, The Epicure's Almanack is a never-before-reprinted 1815 good food guide to 650 eating establishments in London by Ralph Roylance, who visited tripe shops, coaching inns, tea gardens and London's first Indian restaurant in search of fine fare.
Is this merely esoterica? Perhaps, but looking through the depressing piles of serial killer tat that pass for current novels in station bookshops, you might be better off with the bonkers baron.
No 116British Library Invisibles
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