Telling the Whole Truth: Wilkie Collins and the Lady Detective

  • Jessica Maynard


In a letter to William Roughead, Henry James outlined his aesthetic of the perfect crime. Roughead had recently sent him an account of the trial of Madeleine Smith, the Glasgow architect’s daughter who had achieved notoriety in 1857 when she was tried for the murder of her lover, a Jersey shipping clerk named L’Angelier. But for James, the peculiar appeal of the case lay not so much in its undoubted sensationalism — arsenic poisoning, a lover with a foreign name, unseemly love letters — as in its inconclusiveness. Aesthetic perfection here lay in imperfection itself, in a Scottish verdict of ‘not proven’ which enabled Smith to resume her place in society, albeit with a perpetual query above her name.1 James recollects:

I can still see the queer look of the ‘not proven’, seen for the first time, on the printed page of the newspaper. I stand again with it, on the summer afternoon — a boy of 14 — in the open window of the Rue Neuve Chaussée where I read it. Only I didn’t know then of its — the case’s perfect beauty and distinction. … And what a pity she was almost of the pre-photographic age — I would give so much for a veracious portrait of her then face. (Lubbock 1920, 386–7)

It is, then, this ‘queer look’—a failure in binary judgement, a refusal to decide one way or the other — that makes this ‘the type’, the perfect case, with nothing to be taken from it or added.


Arsenic Poisoning Suicide Note Suspended Judgement Binary Judgement Summer Afternoon 
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  1. 6.
    See F. Tennyson Jesse (ed.), The Trial of Madeleine Smith (London: William Hodge and Co. Ltd, 1927). William Roughead himself edited other trials in the series, including that of Mary Blandy, about which James enthuses in another letter to Roughead: ‘I devoured the tender Blandy in a single feast’. James, Letters, ed. Leon Edel, Vol. IV (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984).Google Scholar

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© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 1996

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  • Jessica Maynard

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