The Trail of the Serpent (1860) was Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s first published novel. It originally appeared as ‘Three Times Dead; or, The Secret of the Dead’ but due to low sales, it was condensed and republished as ‘The Trail of the Serpent’. It is widely considered to be one of the first British detective novels, but either way, it is certainly a sensational novel, packed with many of the familiar tropes like family secrets, murder, jealousy, blackmail, suspense and mistaken identities, with a wonderful escape from a lunatic asylum to boot. The story begins in Slopperton-on-the-Sloshy (sounds like my native Wiltshire), where we follow the evil foundling Jabez North who rises from school usher to millionaire banker. North devises a heinous plot to snare a wealthy heiress into murdering her ‘secret’ husband with poison, and then blackmails her into marrying him. We also follow the fortunes, or rather misfortunes, of Daredevil Dick (aka Richard Marwood) who is accused of his uncle’s murder. He is detained in a mental asylum for 8 years, and in these chapters we perhaps find Braddon at her best with her comic portrayals of the other inmates. With none other than Napoleon Bonaparte, and the Emperor of the German Ocean and Chelsea Waterworks for company, Richard struggles through his ordeal until the deaf detective Peters (who communicates through sign language) hatches a successful escape plan. Eventually the complex mystery is unraveled, and the sinister Jabez North is arrested after being traced to a ship (where he is hiding in a coffin believe it or not) on route to the New World.
This is only the second novel that I have read over the last two years that I would give a five star rating. The other being the supernatural masterpiece ‘The Shadow of Ashyldat’ (1863), by Mrs. Henry Wood.