ISHMAEL, the poor benighted narrator of Moby-Dick, would make an ideal reader for The Dead Duke, His Secret Wife, and the Missing Corpse: An Extraordinary Edwardian Case of Deception and Intrigue. Early in Melville’s novel, you may remember, Ishmael tells us that he is drawn to dark and morbid thoughts especially “whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul […].”

The Dead Duke is a thoroughly Novemberish book (or, for that matter, a Decemberish one too) — ideal reading, like ghost and detective stories, for the days of the year when evening arrives early and temperatures are dropping. One can easily imagine Ishmael, lying in his berth on the Pequod, quickly devouring this chronicle of mystery and greed that’s especially shocking because it’s nonfiction — not the figment of a gothic novelist’s imagination.

BBC researcher and producer Piu Marie Eatwell centers her narrative upon the legal twists, secret revelations, and stunning challenges to the legacy of the late William John Cavendish-Bentinck-Scott, the fifth Duke of Portland, sometimes referred to as “Lord John.” For most of his life, Lord John was a recluse, hiding from public view in late-19th-century London behind his home’s high walls. When he traveled, he insisted on using a carriage with tinted windows; when he walked in his home’s private garden, he had tall screens installed around the area to shield him from view.

His aversion to being seen led to a spectacular solution out in the Nottinghamshire countryside at Welbeck Abbey, the dukedom’s principal seat. The duke used a network of underground tunnels and rooms extending to all corners of the estate to move around unseen. Servants never directly interacted with him. Instead, he wrote down his orders and left them in brass letterboxes installed on the doors of the rooms he used. Similarly, if servants had questions for him, they would write them down and leave them in the same boxes. (Secret tunnels? Tinted windows and tall screens? Letterbox communications? Somebody get Tim Burton on the phone. I think I have his next film project here.)

Eatwell explains that Lord John’s eccentricity seemed motivated, at least partly, by rumors that he suffered from a terrible skin affliction. Or maybe it was a strain of madness in the family lineage that contributed to his extraordinary shyness. Whatever the actual reason, Lord John died in 1879 “without issue” — and apparently without heirs, which shouldn’t really come as a surprise. The dukedom’s lands and monies quietly passed to the bachelor duke’s cousin William — “Willy” — who set about refurbishing Welbeck Abbey with his wife Winifred. In the years ahead of them, in the early 20th century, the Sixth Duke and his wife would host visits from the great dignitaries of the era, including Queen Victoria and Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

But that quiet transfer of title and wealth was disturbed in the late 1890s by an unexpected claimant to Lord John’s fortune: a woman, Anna Maria Druce, who said she had been married to one of the Duke’s sons and that the Portland millions should go to her own son, Sidney, not Willy and Winnie. What makes this plot twist more stunning — a gothic novelist would have to try very hard to do better — is the argument Druce used to defend her claim. She argued that the Duke had lived a double life under the identity of T. C. Druce, an immensely successful London businessman and father of six who had been her father-in-law.

T. C. Druce had fathered three legitimate children and three illegitimate; Anna Maria married his legitimate son Walter, and together they had a son of their own, Sidney. When T. C. Druce died in 1864, the family business went to his eldest son, Herbert. It didn’t matter that Herbert was illegitimate: T. C. Druce designated him in his will as heir to the Baker Street Bazaar, the wildly successful precursor of today’s department stores. Anna Maria couldn’t make any claims to the bazaar for her son because of the existence of Druce’s will.

The duke’s millions, however, were a different matter. Though 20 years had passed since the duke’s death, if she could prove that Druce and the duke were the same person, Sidney would have a genuine legal claim there.

In court Anna Maria insisted that T. C. Druce’s burial had been faked and that the only thing inside his coffin were rolls of lead to simulate the weight of a corpse. With his secret identity buried and the family business in his eldest son’s hands, she said, the man who had been her father-in-law slipped away to the northern edges of Sherwood Forest to resume his eccentric ducal existence for another 15 years.

Besides marshaling eyewitnesses to her side, Anna Maria argued that the only way to prove her argument would require exhuming the coffin — which is why she stood in an ecclesiastical court in the 1890s seeking permission (known as a “faculty”) to do so. It was an obvious solution to her suit, but it was delayed for more than a decade with “a dozen judges [presiding] over fourteen court hearings […].” The frustrating legal ordeal would eventually drive Anna Maria Druce into an asylum.

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As the best books in this genre do, Eatwell’s narrative expands to give us a broad view of the cultural and social circumstances existing in England in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The public’s interest in scandals and crimes, for instance, seemed as feverish then as it is today. Victorian and Edwardian appetites for gossip boosted the circulation of established newspapers and the penny press as they dangled tantalizing serials — like the Ripper case — in front of obsessed readers.

On the other hand, it was also a time when people from all walks of life, rich and working-class, lived double lives and maintained secret identities. As Eatwell explains:

From the famous to the infamous, real-life cases showed that it was by no means unheard of for eminent and even ordinary Victorians, faced by the restrictive social and moral conventions of the time, to adopt double lives. Victorian literature, too, was saturated with motifs of duplicity and deception.

There was Henry Wainwright, a London businessman who kept a wife and children in Tredegar Square and a mistress and children in the East End. All went very well for Wainwright until business troubles forced him to downgrade the quality of his mistress’s life. She didn’t understand why his wife didn’t have to make any sacrifices, and when she threatened to reveal her existence, Wainwright killed her. His crime, though, was soon discovered, and he was hanged.

Along with Wainwright, Eatwell cites other examples of real Victorians who led double lives — among them novelist Mary Elizabeth Braddon and Oscar Wilde — as well as many literary ones, including Robert Louis Stevenson’s creation Henry Jekyll. I’m sure plenty of people masquerade behind secret identities today — Gone Girl? anyone? — but Eatwell suggests this behavior was far more widespread in the late Victorian and Edwardian worlds than in our own.

Anna Maria Druce’s claim that the duke lived a double life prompted many efforts to block her request to have her father-in-law’s coffin exhumed. Representatives of both Herbert Druce and Willy and Winnie threw fabulous amounts of money at her to drop her case. Eatwell says Anna Maria was offered “upwards of 60,000 pounds, […] [e]normous sums for the day, worth over 6 million pounds in today’s money.” But she refused, and both parties enlisted legal teams that fought her in the courts. Key witnesses to Anna Maria’s claim suddenly pulled back and changed their stories — bribed or blackmailed, Eatwell suspects, by private investigators hired by Henry Druce or Willy. All of this was captured in the newspapers of the day, and the public was swept away by Anna Maria’s David-versus-Goliath ordeal to have her son rightfully acknowledged as the duke’s legitimate heir.

Just as Anna Maria’s resources were exhausted and her failure seemed imminent, a new bombshell fell. A woman stepped forward, claiming that she had been married to T. C. Druce many years before Anna Maria. If Anna Maria won her case against the duke, this woman would be the real victor: her children with the duke/Druce would have a prior claim to the duke’s fortune.

In the language of the time, well now, doesn’t that just take the egg?

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Eatwell’s narrative moves smoothly through the book’s second half as new claimants arrive on the scene and new complications pose more confusion than the thick yellow fog — known as “a pea souper” — that habitually descended on London. Eatwell builds each chapter’s developments to a cliffhanger as she carries us to the moment we’ve all been waiting for, the opening of T. C. Druce’s coffin. Consider, for instance, how she invests that scene with great suspense:

Within the coffin, there was found to be a leaden shell, bearing the same inscription as the outer coffin of oak. The lid of the leaden shell was then cut away, taking with it an inner, wooden casing. An electric light was suspended above the exposed contents of the coffin, the glare of the beam bouncing wildly as it swung over the expectant group. All craned to get a glimpse inside the coffin. A collective gasp rippled around the enclosed confines of the shed.

One can almost hear the ghost of Wilkie Collins muttering, “Well done!”

The outcome of the coffin opening — and of the Duke/Druce affair — won’t be given in this review. That wouldn’t be fair to Eatwell or to her readers. Instead, it is best to point readers to Eatwell’s well-researched, engrossing volume to learn more about the coffin opening, the significance of George Hollamby, Fanny Lawson, Elizabeth Crickmer, and others, and the secrets harbored in a little house in Dorset that Eatwell visited after the publication of an earlier edition of this book (that visit prompted her to add new material to the current edition of the book, and those additions bring her narrative to a richer, more poignant end).

The Dead Duke, Eatwell explains near the end, presents a tale that she considers “significant because of the light it shed on the lies, deceit and hypocrisy practised by society at the time, and their tragic consequence.” I can’t help but agree with her own verdict, adding that her book is also a reminder that no matter what stories have captured popular tastes right now — a young woman skilled in archery and living in apocalyptic times or a lovable dinosaur and his boy — nothing quite takes your breath away like a Novemberish tale that turns out to be real.

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Owchar is a communications director at Claremont McKenna College and former deputy book editor of the LA Times. He blogs at Call of the Siren.