The Dead Letter (1867) by Seeley Regester

The Dead Letter by Seeley Regester

6 stars (6/10 stars)

My God! Murdered! Who do you suppose did it?”

The post office’s dead letter department is a place of last resort for mail with nowhere else to go. That makes it the perfect spot for Richard Redfield. Only a few years ago, Richard was on the brink of a promising legal career, respected by friends and colleagues. Now he buries himself among the lost letters, trying to hide from the past…until the past lands right on his desk. One of the dead letters has a very familiar postmark, “October 18, 1857, Blankville, New York.” It is the very date and location of the event he has been trying so hard to forget. Richard assumes that the dead letter office is the end of the line for him. Instead, it may be the beginning of his redemption.

The Dead Letter is the literary equivalent of an overstuffed Victorian parlor, every corner crammed with artifacts both fascinating and grotesque. This book has everything: stabbings, ghosts, secret babies, clairvoyant child detectives, South America for no reason. It goes on forever and none of it makes a bit of sense, yet the wonderfully deranged melodrama leaves the reader dying to know what happens next. As with all books in the Library of Congress Crime Classics series, The Dead Letter is also historically important as the first novel-length American detective story, written by dime-novelist Metta Fuller Victor under one of her many pen names.

The book opens with a vivid scene in the dead letter office, where dreams go to die. Bored government employees sort through the flotsam of undeliverable mail, indifferent to whatever emotion may be expressed within. Their job is to harvest anything of value and ruthlessly discard the rest.

Young ladies whose love letters have gone astray, evil men whose plans have been confided in writing to their confederates, may feel but little apprehension of the prying eyes of the Department; nothing attracts it but objects of material value—sentiment is below par…Occasionally a grave clerk smiles sardonically at the ridiculous character of some of the articles which come to light; sometimes, perhaps, looks thoughtfully at a withered rosebud or a bunch of pressed violets, a homely little pin-cushion or a book-mark, wishing it had reached its proper destination. I cannot answer for other employees, who may not have even this amount of heart and imagination to invest in the dull business of a Government office; but when I was in the Department I was guilty, at intervals, of such folly—yet I passed for the coldest, most cynical man of them all.

Richard never expects to recognize anything from his own past among them. Against all odds, however, the cryptic letter from Blankville is assigned to the one man able to recognize the vicious crime it alludes to.

Before washing up in the dead letter office, Richard Redfield was a happy man. Despite losing his father at a young age, leaving his mother in straitened circumstances, Richard has found a surrogate father in his employer John Argyll, who is training him in the law. Richard has every expectation of joining Argyll’s legal firm in small-town New York after completing his studies. More importantly, though, Argyll and his daughters Mary and Eleanor have welcomed Richard into the heart of their family. His feelings for Mary may not be exactly fraternal, but he knows that her fiancé Henry Moreland is a splendid fellow well deserving of such a jewel. The only shadow in Richard’s life is his rivalry with the Argyll family’s arrogant cousin James. This is a minor difficulty, however. From the vantage point of October 17, 1857, Richard can see a pleasant and useful life stretching out ahead of him. He cannot imagine anything that would mar his future.

All of that changes overnight. Henry Moreland fails to come home one stormy evening; the next morning, his bloody corpse is found in the lane. The murder ignites the normally quiet village. “People looked behind them as they walked, hearing the assassin’s step in every rustle of the breeze. Murder!—the far-away, frightful idea had suddenly assumed a real shape—it seemed to have stalked through the town, entering each swelling, standing by every hearth-stone.” Meanwhile, the Argyll house is plunged into despair. Mary seems to be going full Miss Havisham. On what should have been her wedding day, Mary dons her bridal gown and “marries” her dead fiancé, to the horror of the reader and the admiring approval of Richard.

As the days pass with no arrest, John Argyll takes matters into his own hands. Mr. Burton is the most famous detective in New York City, and one of the unhappiest. Decades before Sherlock Holmes, Mr. Burton is able to perform amazing feats of deduction using the tiniest of clues (and, admittedly, some psychic powers). In fact, he’s a bit of an empath, sagging beneath the twin burdens of his self-imposed task. He acutely understands the pain of crime victims, even as he is sometimes overwhelmed by the enormity of committing a killer to justice. “When I meet people, I seem to see their minds and not their bodies,” Mr. Burton tells Richard. “I can’t help it.”

To me he had the air of a lion, who sees its prey but a little distance off, and who trembles with restraint. The light in his eye narrowed down to one gleam of concentrated fire—a steely glittering point—he watched the rest of us and said little. If I had been a guilty man I should have shrunk from that observation, through the very walls, or out of a five-story window, if there had been no other way. It struck me that it would have been unbearable to any accusing conscience.

Richard’s role in the story is interesting, as his seemingly artless narration communicates more to the reader than Richard himself seems to realize. In fact, after a while one begins to wonder whether he is really as naïve as he appears. The novel’s flashback structure makes this question even more intriguing. We know that, despite Mr. Burton’s great-detective confidence, something is going to go wrong in Blankville. This lends an increasing tension to the story, as Richard may be building to his own disillusionment, or to something even more sinister.

Despite Richard’s best efforts, Mr. Burton’s most valuable assistant turns out to be his little daughter Lenore, who is a powerful clairvoyant. Her powers are so intense that going into a trance is painful, so he only calls upon the child for his most baffling cases. The murder of Henry Moreland certainly qualifies, but young Lenore becomes more deeply involved in the case than her father could ever have imagined.

The treatment of Lenore is one area in which Regester’s nineteenth-century sensibilities come into crashing conflict with modern attitudes. The Victorians were sentimental about illness and children, and both attitudes are on full display here. First we have Lenore essentially being abused by her father, as he induces a trance that he knows is not only agonizing, but will shorten her life as well. (It is an accepted scientific fact in this book that any use of psychic powers saps the life force, which is bad news for the highly sensitive Burton family.) The author lingers lovingly over details of the child’s suffering and the illness that follows.

The situation only grows more uncomfortable when Mr. Burton dispatches Lenore to the Argyll home, hoping she will be able to pick up bad vibes from the killer. Instead, Richard and James Argyll become rivals for her affection, with unabashedly romantic undertones. It is repulsive to watch two grown men flirting with an eleven-year-old child. Richard rhapsodizes endlessly about the little girl’s beauty, enticing her to sit on his lap and kiss him, before growing enraged with jealousy as Lenore turns to James’ embraces. Needless to say, all of this makes for uncomfortable reading.

Another aspect of the book that reads oddly today is its approach to Leesy Sullivan, an Irish seamstress who becomes involved in the investigation. The first time Richard encounters Leesy he is struck by her beauty and dignified bearing. As he slowly learns more about her, he discovers that she is also intelligent, brave, and deeply loyal. Strangely enough, however, these qualities only render Leesy more suspicious to him. Richard has very definite ideas of what traits a working-class immigrant should possess—Leesy should be a simple, cheerful soul. By displaying qualities that strike Richard as more appropriate for a “lady,” Leesy strikes him as deceptive simply for existing. The mere fact that a servant could have her own complicated inner life is incriminating in itself.

Fortunately, The Dead Letter is also a historical curio in more enjoyable ways. An especially evocative passage follows Richard as he pursues a suspect through the ferries and foggy docks of 1850s New York City. On another occasion, a large cash payment is made that includes “city money of various denominations.” The United States government did not begin issuing paper currency until the 1860s, so this would have been notes issued by local banks which could be exchanged for gold or silver. Even more intriguing are Mr. Burton’s scientific experiments, which show that during this era the border between science, spiritualism, and the supernatural was much thinner than it is now—nonexistent, perhaps. These characters are surrounded at all times by a vast invisible world just waiting to be captured by scientists, a world in which spirits and microbes can coexist and seem equally plausible.

I have always had a weakness for Victorian sensation novels, and The Dead Letter is a good choice for those looking to sample the genre. As wordy and purple-prosed as it might be at times, there is something endearing about the book’s willingness to do absolutely anything, however crazy, to thrill and surprise the reader.

Second Opinions

Kirkus Reviews

A document of unquestioned historical importance that only the most devoted genre fans will read for fun.

Publishers Weekly

Fans of Wilkie Collins will feel right at home. More than a literary curiosity, this book merits the new audience it will now receive.


The Dead Letter is available in paperback and ebook formats from Library of Congress Crime Classics.


3 thoughts on “The Dead Letter (1867) by Seeley Regester

    1. It’s a wild ride for sure! And especially interesting to see how many great-detective tropes are already present when the detective story itself is literally only twenty years old at this point.


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