The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

Three Times Dead (1860)

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

Three Times Dead was written by Mary Elizabeth Braddon. Braddon (1835-1915) was a successful commercial writer who is best-known for her sensation novels.

Three Times Dead is about a murder committed by Jabez North. North is an orphan of destitute means and great ambition. He kills Montague Harding, a wealthy man just returned from India, but unfortunately Harding has just given all his spare money to his ne’er-do-well nephew Richard Marwood, and Jabez’s murder achieves nothing. But Jabez discovers the existence of his twin brother and quickly puts a plan into action. He steals a bunch of checks from the master of the school at which he works, murders his twin brother, and then arranges his brother’s corpse to make it appear that he, Jabez, committed suicide. (The twin brother is homeless and jobless and no one except his common law wife knows who he is). Jabez then cashes the checks and takes off for the Continent, where he reinvents himself as the adventurer Raymond Marolles. Jabez cleverly tricks the lovely heiress Valerie de Cevennes into poisoning her husband and then blackmails her into marrying him. Meanwhile, Richard Marwood is convicted of murder, but thanks to timely advice from Joseph Peters, one of the detectives who arrested him, Richard shams insanity and is sent to an asylum instead of the gallows. The rest of Three Times Dead is about how Peters brings Jabez North to justice and helps Richard clear his name.

Three Times Dead, which was later released as The Trail of the Serpent, is a murder mystery. It is explicitly a murder mystery, rather than a satire of the law, as Charles Dickens’ Bleak House was, or the story of an inheritance lost and regained, as R.D. Blackmore’s Clara Vaughan and Lord Bulwer Lytton’s Night and Morning were. Because Three Times Dead places the crime and its solution at the center of the plot, rather than relegating them to secondary status, Three Times Dead is in all likelihood the first English mystery novel. (Catherine Crowe’s The Adventures of Susan Hopley is a Proto-Mystery). Three Times Dead is not a whodunit; the reader is aware from the beginning who is responsible for the crime. Rather, Three Times Dead is about a crime, those involved with the crime, the aftermath of the crime, and the resolution of the crime.

Three Times Dead is Braddon’s first novel, and it is an auspicious debut. Braddon is above all else entertaining. Her prose style is almost entirely lacking in the overdone fustian of earlier Victorian writers. Although Braddon goes on a bit too long at times, the style of narration is smooth and conversational, with a modern and almost noir feel in places:

A bad, determined, black minded November day. A day on which the fog shaped itself into a demon, and lurked behind men’s shoulders, whispering into their ears, “Cut your throat!–you know you’ve got a razor, and can’t shave with it, because you’ve been drinking and your hand shakes; one little gash under the left ear, and the business is done. It’s the best thing you can do. It is, really.” A day on which the rain, the monotonous ceaseless persevering rain, has a voice as it comes down, and says, “Don’t you think you could go melancholy mad? Look at me; be good enough to watch me for a couple of hours or so, and think, while you watch me, of the girl who jilted you ten years ago; and of what a much better man you would be to day if she had only loved you truly. Oh, I think, if you’ll only be so good as to watch me, you might really contrive to go mad."1 

In places Braddon’s dialogue is slightly dated, but it is never awkward. She also seems to have faithfully reproduced the styles of dialogue she heard around her, so that what feels dated to modern readers may simply be how people really spoke in 1860.

Braddon’s characterization is vivid, albeit not realistic. None of the characters are particularly credible or even three-dimensional, but they all have an entertaining two dimensions. Jabez North is a wonderful villain, sly, ambitious, cunning, ruthless and smooth, and if the Marquis de Cevennes, Valerie’s father, thinks that Jabez does not measure up to Iago, it is because Iago is a marvel of “motiveless malignity,”2 while Jabez’s motives–wealth and power–are understandable. Jabez is gloriously absent of redeeming features. The Marquis is as memorable as Jabez, but regrettably appears on far fewer pages; the Marquis is a sardonic old mongoose to Jabez’s clever cobra. And Mr. Peters, though not nearly as colorful as Jabez or the Marquis, is more than just a mute detective.

Three Times Dead also shows an acute consciousness of class and of the hypocrisy of society and the wretchedness of poverty. More than most of the nineteenth century detective novels which followed it, Three Times Dead is always aware of the have-nots in society and how they are too often condemned to lives of hopelessness. Three Times Dead is nearly always entertaining. It lacks many of the stylistic defects of Braddon’s contemporaries, and for large stretches is a page-turner. Even the monologues, which are occasionally pages-long infodumps, are not unreadable. But, unfortunately, Three Times Dead is also a good example of a good writer making the best use possible of bad material. Great fun though it is, Three Times Dead is a mess of plot absurdities. This may be an unfair judgment, in that Braddon’s surprises and revelations and plot twists are far more clichéd now than they were in her day. But it is hard to take seriously a plot which includes: identical twin brothers; key evidence being burned in a wholly ridiculous fashion; a soprano dying of poison on stage during a scene in which the character he plays dies of poison; the revelation of one character’s parentage, which makes him the brother of his wife; an attempted escape via a coffin loaded on board a passenger liner; and the last minute revelation that a dead character is still alive. In more openly sensational and Gothic works, like Eugène Sue’s The Wandering Jew, this sort of over-the-top indulgence can be fun, but in a detective novel these elements are unwelcome (unless the author’s name is Harry Stephen Keeler).

Three Times Dead is interesting for reasons separate from its intrinsic qualities. Like the rest of the novel’s characters, Joseph Peters is not a three-dimensional character, but he is solidly two-dimensional and is given far more depth than most disabled characters in Victorian literature. Peters is also the first mute detective in mystery fiction. The vogue for disabled detectives really began in the twentieth century, with Ernest Bramah’s sightless detective Max Carrados, but there were a few precursors. Peters substantially predates all of them. Similarly, Three Times Dead is perhaps the first mystery novel to make use of what might be called the “Doc Savage dynamic” (after Henry W. Ralston, John Nanovic, and Lester Dent’s pulp hero), in which a heroic central figure brings together a disparate group of talented assistants and helpers to fight crime. Victor Alexis Ponson du Terrail’s Rocambole (see: The Rocambole Adventures) did this, even more so than Peters–Rocambole is much more clearly a leading man type of hero than Peters is–but the Cheerful Cherokees who help Peters to clear Richard Marwood’s name, and who vary from gentleman gamblers to Jim Stilson, “the Left Handed Smasher,” are precursors of Monk, Ham, Long Tom, and the rest of Doc Savage’s assistants.

Three Times Dead is an innovation on previous novels with detecting elements:

On the surface, The Trail of the Serpent is a detective story whose basic elements are represented by the discovery and persecution of the villain (‘whodunit’). Nevertheless, the real innovation of this book lies in the detecting process aimed at understanding the motivations driving the criminal actions (‘howdunit’). This ‘vertical’ investigation of the community living in Slopperton-on-the-Sloshy introduces in fact a ‘horizontal’ analysis of themes such as the hereditary nature of evil and the value of ‘liminal’ people, as opposed to the calls to order, sanity and morality of the citizens who are part of the Slopperton community. Apart from the intertextual influence of The Mysteries of London (1845) by G. W. M. Reynolds (inspired by Eugène Sue’s Les Mystères de Paris [see: The Mysteries of Paris]), of Alexander Dumas’s works (for the description of the Parisian setting), of detective Vidocq’s Memories (1828) [see: Proto-Mystery] and of many other paraliterary texts such as the Newgate Novels [see: Proto-Mystery], the incipital section of The Trail of the Serpent is a tribute to Edward Bulwer Lytton’s Paul Clifford (1830) [see: Proto-Mystery], and anticipates Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend (1864).3 

Recommended Edition

Print: M.E. Braddon, The Trail of the Serpent. New York: Modern Library, 2003.

Online: https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/007695254

 

1 M.E. Braddon, The Trail of the Serpent: A Novel (London: Simpkin, Marshall, 1890), 5-6.

2 Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s famous description of Iago made during his six lectures on Shakespeare between December 1818 and January 1919.

3 Saverio Tomaiulo, In Lady Audley’s Shadow: Mary Elizabeth Braddon and Victorian Literary Genres (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2010), 104-105.