My latest entry in Patti Abbott’s series of Forgotten Books is a slim volume, even when padded with a short introduction by Matthew Sweet, and an additional story called ‘The Mystery at Fernwood’. Nevertheless, The Lawyer’s Secret, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, caught my eye at the week-end when I called in at that splendid bookshop, Blackwell’s of Oxford, and it proved to be a swift and rather entertaining read.
The story opens in truly classical fashion, with an enigmatic lawyer announcing the eccentric contents of a will to a young woman. Here are the first lines:
‘”It is the most provoking clause that was ever invented to annul the advantages of a testament,” said the lady.
“It is a condition which must be fulfilled, or you lose the fortune,” replied the gentleman.’
A good start, I think, and I enjoyed this story. It’s a ‘novella with a secret’ or perhaps an example of ‘sensation fiction’ rather than crime fiction in the modern sense. The mystery at the heart of the story is not really concealed with great art for very long. But the pace carries the reader along, and although I don’t claim this as a neglected masterpiece, I was glad I found it.
The story, and ‘The Mystery at Fernwood’, were both first published as long ago as 1861. Shortly after that, Braddon published Lady Audley’s Secret, which remains her most famous work. Hers was a long career – she wrote over 70 books and died in 1915. Not in the Wilkie Collins class, perhaps, but an author to be reckoned with.