The devotion of the outrageously prolific Braddon (1835-1915) to the form of the "sensation novel" produced literally dozens of bestselling Victorian potboilers written more or less in the manner made respectable by Joseph Sheridan le Fanu and Wilkie Collins. This exuberantly campy 1864 romance, a slightly revised version of Braddon's unsuccessful debut, Three Times Dead
, concerns a serial malefactor's assiduous criminality, temporary escape from judgment, and eventual comeuppance. Its increasingly lurid events begin in the riverside town of Slopperton-on-the-Sloshy, where handsome young schoolteacher Jabez North, a foundling and a scheming careerist, commits murder, drives his pregnant mistress to suicide, and eludes the pursuit of a dogged detective (one of the earliest in English fiction). Peters, despite being deaf and dumb, engineers the release from an insane asylum of the innocent man accused of North's crimes, and patiently continues to pursue "the serpent." The latter behaves even more atrociously while living incognito in France, where he destroys the happiness of a charming heiress before encountering the source of his own infamy, and is at last apprehended in a garish climax Bram Stoker might have dreamed up.
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