Wilkie Collins’ “lost” novel

At Northwestern University’s law school, Rob Warden heads up the Center on Wrongful Convictions and spends the bulk of his time poring over cases where innocent men may have been sent to Death Row for crimes they didn’t commit. So it’s no wonder that the case of Stephen and Jesse Boorn — where their alleged murder victim turned up alive in New Jersey after the fact –fascinated him. Then he found out there was a novel based on the case, published all the way back in 1874 by none other than Wilkie Collins:

"It’s America’s first wrongful conviction case on record, and it’s an example of the ‘dead alive’ – something that was the gold standard for wrongful conviction cases in the pre-DNA age," Warden said in a recent interview. "It also contains three elements we find in many wrongful conviction cases to this very day: coerced false confessions, testimony from jailhouse snitches, and the reliance of the prosecution on junk science."

Because of Warden’s fascination with the 186-year-old case, he is reissuing "The Dead Alive," an 1874 British mystery novel based on the Boorns’ ordeal. It was written by Charles Dickens’ friend and occasional collaborator, Wilkie Collins.

"When you mention Wilkie Collins, people have generally heard of ‘The Moonstone’ or ‘The Woman in White’ – and maybe even have read them," Warden said. "But no one seems to have heard of ‘The Dead Alive.’ I mentioned it to (attorney and best-selling legal thriller author) Scott Turow, and he didn’t know it – and he’s an expert on crime novels."

Warden was unaware of the novel himself until several years ago when he was preparing a lecture for the Cardozo School of Law in New York. One of the sources he used for the lecture was a 1933 study of wrongful convictions written by Yale law professor and former librarian of Congress Edwin Borchard, which mentioned the Boorn case, and noted that Collins had written a fictionalized version of it. Later, while writing a law review article for the University of Missouri, Warden decided to find a copy of the long-forgotten novel.

"I did a search for it and finally located a nice first edition for $150," he said. "It’s quite short. I literally read all of it on my way to New York – while riding from my house to O’Hare, and then on the plane. I was quite taken with it, and decided to find out how Collins came to write it. I also got curious about how many other ‘dead-alive’ cases there have been in American history."

The reissued version also includes a brief foreword by Scott Turow, who puts forward the notion that DEAD ALIVE might well be the first legal thriller.