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The Trail of the Serpent
Victorian England's best-selling woman novelist Mary Elizabeth Braddon still captivates readers with this chilling story of murder, betrayal, and friendship. Hailed as the first detective novel, The Trail of the Serpent is enjoying a much deserved revival. The Trail is both a sensation novel and a detective novel. It has all of the usual elements of a sensation novel, including family secrets, crime, and adultery (a ruse, in this case), and it depicts these as features of middle- and upper-class life. Yet The Trail’s role as a detective novel is arguably more important, for while it is an early example of both genres, it has the distinction of being the first British detective novel. It predates, and, in many respects, influenced Wilkie Collins’s Moonstone and Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock series, but unlike these works, The Trail’s place in the history of detective fiction has often been overlooked. "Readers will find a great deal of social criticism, some subtle and some not so subtle, in Braddon’s fearless first novel. There are attacks on hypocrisy, the permanency of marriage, and other topics, but The Trail is especially progressive in its portrayal of physical difference (or “disability”) and hand-based communication. In this respect, it stands out against other Victorian novels, many of which have acquired a dismal reputation for contributing to the creation of “disability” as a concept that stigmatizes and marginalizes real-life people.
In The Trail, Braddon often represents her female characters in ways that defy typical Victorian gender norms. Unlike some of Dickens’s novels, there are no doll-like women or perfect Angel-in-the-House heroines. Today, it continues to be as fascinating in its social commentary as it is entertaining to read." (Catherine M. Welter, Introduction to The Trail of the Serpent)