Sunday, January 8, 2023

The Lawyer’s Story of a Stolen Letter by Wilkie Collins

An early attempt at detective fiction by a Victorian novelist

A portrait of Wilkie Collins by John Everett Millais
A portrait of Wilkie Collins
by John Everett Millais
The English novelist Wilkie Collins is held in great respect by crime fiction fans as one of the first exponents of the genre.

Although he is chiefly remembered for his sensation literature, of which his 1860 novel The Woman in White is a famous example, he also wrote The Moonstone in 1868, which is often talked of as the first English detective novel, because there is a crime at the heart of the story, a variety of suspects and an early example of a detective in the character of Sergeant Cuff.

Collins became a friend of Charles Dickens and contributed short stories to Household Words, a publication owned and edited by Dickens. He wrote The Lawyer’s Story of a Stolen Letter, originally called The Fourth Poor Traveller, for the Christmas edition of Household Words in 1854.

This is considered a very early attempt at detective fiction by Collins, as it was 14 years before he wrote The Moonstone.

The affair of the stolen letter is related by a lawyer to an artist to pass the time while he is having his portrait painted.

The lawyer, Mr Boxsious, tells the artist that he has not always been comfortable financially, or successful professionally, and that he got his first lucky break when he earned £500 as a reward for retrieving a stolen letter that was being used to try to extort money from a young man of his acquaintance.

The man was about to marry a beautiful young woman when he received a disturbing note in which the sender claimed he had a letter that would implicate the woman’s dead father in an attempted forgery. The sender threatened to pass the letter on to a newspaper unless the man paid him £500.

The lawyer regales the artist with the story of how he outwitted the man who stole the letter, a disreputable clerk who used to work for the woman’s father. By clever detective work the lawyer was able to work out where the letter was hidden and restore it to the daughter of the man who wrote it.

Some see The Moonstone as
the first English detective novel 
In just 35 pages, Collins describes the meeting between the lawyer and the artist, brings up the subject of the lawyer’s opportunity to earn £500 at the start of his career, and sets the stage for him to tell the artist the story of how he executed an elaborate search and surveillance plan to gain access to the blackmailer’s hotel room and steal back the letter.

After a meticulous search, he uses the only clue he has been able to find, a puzzling numerical inscription, and applies it to the pattern of the carpet. This enables him to discover the hiding place of the stolen letter, for which the blackmailer was demanding £500.

The lawyer then thinks of ‘a nice irritating little plan’ and replaces the letter with a piece of paper on which he has written ‘change for a five hundred pound note.’

Wilkie Collins was born on this day - 8 January - in 1824 in London. He entered Lincoln’s Inn to study Law and was called to the Bar, but he never practised as a lawyer, preferring to write for a living instead.

His first contribution to Household Words was the story, A Terribly Strange Bed, published in 1852.

His Christmas story, The Fourth Poor Traveller, was reprinted under the title of The Lawyer’s Story of a Stolen Letter in the first collection of short stories by Collins, After Dark, which was published in 1856. 

An edition of The Lawyer's Story of a Stolen Letter is available from Amazon.

The Moonstone is available from or


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