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The Trail of the Serpent by Mary Elizabeth…
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The Trail of the Serpent (1861)

by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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Showing 5 of 5
If you’re going to take up reading Victorian Sensation Novels, you’re going to have to come to grips with a few things. First is coincidence. The things are dirty with them. Entire plots and resolutions are built on them. They are the foundation. People and events seemingly insignificant will later be revealed to not only be connected, but important in ways no one could even guess. Second is exaggeration. At least it seems that way in this century. At the time though people’s reactions to events and actions were proper and correct. People did worry themselves to death over what we deem unimportant these days. Public opinion, mostly. No one dies of shame about anything these days, but the wrong word or look or hat could send someone into a tailspin in 1865. Third is that your sense of tension and dread comes not from being ignorant of the main mystery, but from the solving of it by the characters not in the know and how many of them will be hurt along the way. At least with Braddon it seems this way. The main secret isn’t one for the reader, but the joy of reading one of her books comes from watching the others figure it out and bring the villain to justice. If you like tinkering with clues and parsing dropped hints to find a solution to a central puzzle, Victorian Sensation Novels probably won’t float your boat. If you like watching events unfold with maximum melodrama, coincidences and flair and you have no problem with following a big cast, VSNs are right up your alley. Happy endings guaranteed.

The Trail of the Serpent is an early book and it shows. It’s not nearly as tight as say Lady Audley’s Secret. There are scenes, people and descriptions that don’t directly move the plot forward or add any necessary information. They’re extraneous and often not tied up later to anything that is necessary or important. They’re window-dressing and in later books, Braddon doesn’t get caught up in them like she does here. I’ve read that TTotS was retooled and republished, and it could stand some more of that.

Don’t let that put you off, though. If you like Wilkie Collins for his snakey plots and dastardly villains, you’ll like Braddon, too. She doesn’t get as preachy as Collins and she doesn’t use his epistolary/multi-POV style, but she tells a ripping good tale. Even though this is an early book, she still uses little hooks like this - “If he had known that such a little incident as that could have a dark and dreadful influence on his life, surely he would have thought himself foredoomed and set apart for a cruel destiny.”

Our main victim, Richard, is a bit of a dope and I think Braddon created him a bit too pathetically at the beginning and it doesn’t check up with the schemer he becomes later. Still he didn’t have too many scenes and so wasn’t too annoying. We did get a lot of scenes with our villain though and that’s different from later novels when I found myself wanting to know more from the bad guy directly. The Serpent of the title gets lots of screen time, he’s fun to watch and is a thorough bastard. Braddon gives him what he deserves in the end.

Even though he isn’t running an official investigation, Mr. Peters is trying to help Richard and find the real killer. He’s mute, but not deaf and the descriptions of how he has to communicate before the invention of any standardized Sign Language are great. He basically writes letters into other people’s palms which takes a long time to communicate anything. Take this example - “At this moment the bell hung at the shop-door [...] rang violently, and our old friend Mr. Peters burst into the shop, and through the shop into the parlour, in a state of such excitement that his very fingers seemed out of breath.”

Braddon also has great, galloping sentences that really capture the tumultuous impact London has on a newcomer - “But oh, the shops - what emporiums of splendor! What delightful excitement in being nearly run over every minute! - to say nothing of that delicious chance of being knocked down by the crowd which is collected round a drunken woman expostulating with a policeman. Of course there must be a general election, or a great fire, or a man hanging, or a mad ox at large, or a murder just committed in the next street, or something wonderful going on, or there never could be such crowds of excited pedestrians, and such tearing and rushing, and smashing of cabs, carts, omnibuses, and parcel-delivery vans, all of them driven by charioteers in the last stage of insanity...” How great is that?

I won’t write too much more, but I did LOVE this unknowingly prophetic quote about the state of journalism in Braddon’s time -

“The two papers which appeared on Friday had accounts varying in every item, and the one paper which appeared on Saturday had a happy amalgamation of the two conflicting accounts - demonstrating thereby the triumph of paste and scissors over penny-a-liners’ copy.”

Sound familiar? ( )
1 vote Bookmarque | Apr 28, 2013 |
Good news: the characters. The mute detective Peters, and the alchemist Blurosset are particularly wonderful, but there are a host of other memorable ones. Nice job, Braddon.

Bad news: the plot. Do the contrivances and coincidences of Dumas, Dickens and Hugo irritate you? For heaven's sake, then, do not read this book. Right from minute one, the dumbest shit happens. The three authors I just mentioned are not being lazy when unlikely things happen; they're communicating something about their worldview. Braddon, though, is being lazy. Sorry, but it's totally true.

So, y'know, I had fun. I'm glad I read it. I'd check out more of her stuff.

Is it sexist to say I feel like Braddon writes like a dude? I don't even know what I mean by that. I guess it just feels like...kindof a dude book. Women don't play a very important role in the story. ( )
  AlCracka | Apr 2, 2013 |
Despite being a lover of British 19th century fiction generally, Mary Elizabeth Braddon is an author I've never read before although I've heard of her books. The Trail of the Serpent was one of her first books, originally published serially as Three Times Dead in 1860 it flopped dramatically . Braddon then rewrote it and it was republished in 1861 as The Trail of the Serpent and sold 1,000 copies within a week of publication. Although out of copyright, there's no ebook edition of this book available and until The Modern Library issued a reprint a few years ago, it seems to have been out of print for almost 100 years (according to the blurb on the cover anyway). Given all this, before reading the book I was expecting something that felt like an early novel in a writer's career; something that showed promise, that might be interesting to read if you wanted to consider the development of the author or the particular genre but something that perhaps wouldn't be considered a classic in its own right. Something perhaps like Wilkie Collins' Basil.

Instead I was pleasantly surprise to find The Trail of the Serpent to be a really good book and felt rather sheepish about having made all those assumptions before reading it. It's a mix of detective and sensation fiction with touches of Dickensian humour and social commentary but without Dickens' sentimentality. Murder, revenge and the slow but steady hunt to bring the killer to justice led by Mr Peters, a mute, although not deaf, detective who communicates through sign language.

I thoroughly enjoyed it and if this is the quality of one of Braddon's overlooked books then I can't wait to read her most famous work, Lady Audley's Secret.

It's also probably the first detective novel - it's definitely earlier than the other two major claimants (The Moonstone and The Notting Hill Mystery) but the introduction to my copy of The Notting Hill Mystery says that The Trail of the Serpent 'is in no way a detective novel' which I'm flummoxed by. It's got a detective, he's a main part of the storyline (rather than only being part of a smallish subplot like Inspector Bucket in Bleak House), he solves the crime, he tracks down the killer - seems like a detective novel to me, but apparently not. ( )
3 vote souloftherose | Jun 17, 2012 |
Very readable, very plot-driven, and very sensational! This has all the elements of a good sensation novel, is fast-paced, and has a great villain. I am so glad it is back in print! I really enjoyed reading it.

If you've read a lot of this genre, some of the twists won't be too surprising, but Braddon still takes the reader on a fun and wild ride. And definitely some of the twists I never saw coming. The book is surprisingly funny in parts, and the handicapped detective is shown in a human and respectful manner that surprised me a bit. The courtroom scenes are unusual and well-written. There is probably a reason why Braddon is less canonical than Dickens, and I don't think it's just because she was a woman--her writing just doesn't have the same flair as his. However, she was at her best with sensation novels like this, and only Wilkie Collins can top her. ( )
  sansmerci | Aug 10, 2010 |
Showing 5 of 5

» Add other authors (1 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Mary Elizabeth Braddonprimary authorall editionscalculated
Waters, SarahIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Willis, ChristineEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Epigraph
"Poor race of men, said the pitying Spirit,
Dearly ye pay for your primal fall;
Some flowers of Eden ye yet inherit,
But the trail of the Serpent is over them all."
Thomas Moore
Dedication
First words
I don't suppose it rained harder in the good town of Slopperton-on-the Sloshy than it rained anywhere else.
Quotations
Money is of little use to me except in the necessary expenses of chemicals I use. (Monsieur Blurosset, chemist)
Who can tell whether their folly may not perhaps be better than our wisdom?
Last words
(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0812966783, Paperback)

Mary Elizabeth Braddon (1837–1915), Victorian England’s bestselling woman writer, blends Dickensian humor with chilling suspense in this “exuberantly campy” (Kirkus Reviews) mystery. The novel features Jabez North, a manipulative orphan who becomes a ruthless killer; Valerie de Cevennes, a stunning heiress who falls into North’s diabolical trap; and Mr. Peters, a mute detective who communicates his brilliant reasoning through sign language.

This edition includes a critical Afterword and endnotes by Victorian scholar Dr. Chris Willis.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:11:32 -0400)

"Things are going well for twenty-four-year-old Evan Casher: His career as a documentary filmmaker is booming and his relationship with his new girlfriend, Carrie, couldn't be better. After an urgent phone call from his mother, he makes an unexpected trip home to Austin. Then the unthinkable happens. He arrives to find his mother brutally murdered and narrowly escapes an attempt on his own life. Spirited away from the scene by an enigmatic mercenary with an agenda of his own, Evan is confronted with a shocking fact: His entire life has been little more than a carefully constructed lie." "Pursued by a powerful, ruthless organization of killers who will stop at nothing to keep old secrets buried, Evan's only hope for survival is to uncover the truth about his family...and his own past. With his mother's attackers fast on his heels and with no one to trust - not the authorities, his father, nor the woman he loves - his perilous search takes him from the Texas Hill Country to New Orleans, London and Miami. Full of unforgettable characters and jolting plot twists, Panic is an emotionally-charged thriller about one man's determination to take back his stolen life."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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