Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Passage In The Secret History Of An Irish Countess by Sheridan Le Fanu

Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu
One of the few locked room mysteries set in Ireland, Passage in the Secret history of an Irish Countess is an early example of the format. While it does feature the hallmarks of an impossible crime story, Le Fanu veers more towards psychological horror as the plot develops.

Primarily known as a writer of gothic stories, Le Fanu was a fellow Dubliner and lived by Merrion Square - only a short walk from where I write this now. His most famous novel, "Uncle Silas", was actually an expanded version of Passage in the Secret History of an Irish Countess. It's nice to know he got better with titles.

Passage in the Secret History of an Irish Countess

The short story is available in its entirety for free at or The Literature Network. If you want to read on your Kindle you can download it here (send to Kindle instructions here).

Uncle Silas, the novel based on the short story, is also available for free at Project Gutenberg.

Author: Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu
Date: 1839
Word Count: 14,000 (about 55 pages)
Wikipedia page

Review (contains spoilers)

Passage in the Secret History of an Irish Countess wasn't quite what I was expecting. The story begins with the classic impossible crime set-up - a body is found in a locked room with no signs of the murderer. It then skips forward a generation when the titular Irish Countess (the narrator - Margaret) is sent to live with her Uncle Arthur, who is the primary suspect of the original crime. The uncle, originally the picture of innocence, becomes more sinister as the narrative goes on and Margaret begins to suspect that he was indeed involved.

Save the first few pages, the story doesn't bring too much attention to the impossible nature of the crime. It is only towards the end, when Arthur and his son Edward resolve to kill Margaret utilising the same technique as decades earlier, that the method again becomes the focus. Comparing it to later locked room puzzles is a little unfair because the crux of the story falls firmly within psychological horror, however the false window used to access the locked room is somewhat of a cop-out. Le Fanu makes up for this by offering a perspective rarely seen in the genre - the narrator is the intended victim and is relating the story from within the locked room during the attack.

The unique viewpoint establishes a strong sense of fear and unease, and provides the short story with its greatest strength. By the end of the tale I was caught up more in the narrator's drive to escape than the mystery itself, which was likely Le Fanu's primary intention.

6/10 - Shares more with Psycho than impossible crimes, but an interesting read nonetheless.

Passage in the Secret History of an Irish Countess is available, along with many other locked room mysteries and impossible crimes, in the paperback anthology Death Locked In from Amazon (UK) and Amazon (US).

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