Which was the first detective novel to feature a serial killer? I use the term “detective novel” to exclude book such as The Lodger, by Marie Belloc Lowndes, which is a suspense story heavily influence by the crimes of Jack the Ripper, and which Hitchcock turned into a film early in his career.
I stand to be corrected, but the first serial killer detective novel I know of is The Murders in Praed Street, by John Rhode, and that is my Forgotten Book for today. Today, the plot twists may seem shopworn to seasoned whodunit fans, but this was a ground-breaking book when it appeared in 1928, and I enjoyed reading it.
The luckless denizens of Praed Street start to fall victim to a signature killer of considerable ingenuity, and the police are baffled until Dr Priestley helps them out. One of the murders involved the use of “a remarkably virulent synthetic alkaloid”, prompting the good doctor to reminisce about one such alkaloid with which a character in The Ellerby Case “tipped the spines of the hedgehog to which I so nearly fell a victim. You remember that incident, I dare say?” Odd question. Who could forget an attempted murder by hedgehog spines?
Within a few years, serial killer (or “multiple murder”) mysteries became relatively common. Philip Macdonald wrote two, Anthony Berkeley and Francis Beeding had a go too, and Agatha Christie produced that wonderful puzzle The ABC Murders. But Rhode deserves credit for leading the pack. Today, of course, serial killer novels are two-a-penny. I doubt if many of those who read them know the name of John Rhode. And, whatever his literary limitations, I think that is a pity.