catherine ross nickerson
The two novels presented here are foundational, but long-forgotten,
works in the history of American detective fiction. Fans, collectors, and
literary historians almost universally point to Edgar Allan Poe as the in-
ventor of the detective story, and most go on to trace the development
of the detective novel in the work of British writers like Wilkie Collins,
Arthur Conan Doyle, and Agatha Christie. They tend to return to the
American scene only with the arrival of the hard-boiled style in the 1920s,
a violent, minimalist aesthetic most fully expressed in the work of Dashiell
Hammett. What this history of detective fiction overlooks is the fact that
between the 1860s and the 1920s the detective novel flourished in the
United States—in the hands of women writers. Metta Fuller Victor was
the first writer, male or female, to produce full-length detective novels in
the United States with the publication of The Dead Letter in 1867 and The
Figure Eight in 1869. Those novels, which blended several popular genres
with the central plot of murder and its investigation, influenced other
writers, especially Anna Katharine Green, who was the most successful
author of detective novels in the postbellum period. Green in turn influ-
enced many women writers, creating an identifiable tradition of women’s
detective fiction that extends well into the twentieth century. The close
association of that tradition with an earlier body of popular women’s writ-
ing, the domestic novel of the 1850s, produced a style we can call domes-
tic detective fiction because of its distinctive interest in moral questions
regarding family, home, and women’s experience.
We do not have a great deal of information on the life of Metta Fuller
Victor, though we do have her prolific legacy of fiction. Born in 1831, she
grew up in Pennsylvania and Ohio and attended a female seminary. She
began to write poetry as a teenager, often with her sister Frances Fuller,
and the two published a volume of poetry when Metta Fuller was twenty.
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