Victorian Popular Fictions 4.2 5 Hackenberg

“The Magician of Civilised Life”:

The Literary Detective in Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Early Penny Fiction

Sara Hackenberg


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Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s responses in her earliest novels to the mid-century city mysteries genre – an internationally popular form of penny fiction – allowed her to develop the detective genre in important ways. While attention to Braddon’s early work usually considers how it helped to establish the “sensation” fiction of the 1860s, this article examines how Braddon’s embrace of the earlier urban mysteries narrative both advanced the evolution of the Mysteries genre in the second half of the century and brought its maverick, socially marginal detective characters to new audiences. I argue that because of their roots in the penny Mysteries, Braddon’s detective characters act as agents of social equity rather than figures of surveillance, and they work to challenge many of the social hierarchies, stereotypes, and prejudices that form and undermine “civilised life,” often by magically dismantling or overcoming them.


Braddon; urban mysteries; city mysteries; penny fiction; detective; social equity


Date of Acceptance: 31 December 2022

Date of Publication: 13 January 2023

Double Blind Peer Reviewed


Recommended Citation:

Hackenberg, Sara. 2022. “‘The Magician of Civilised Life’: The Literary Detective in Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Early Penny Fiction.” Victorian Popular Fictions, 4.2: 63-79. ISSN: 2632-4253 (online) DOI:

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