For a while now, I’ve wanted to read some of the early masters of crime fiction. Starting with this column, I plan to feature several of those pioneers. I might intersperse columns on other topics as well. Today, I begin with Anna Katharine Green.
Who Is Anna Katharine Green?
Anna Katharine Green isn’t a household name anymore, but she probably should be. She is the first best-selling female writer of detective novels. She developed detective fiction into its classic form, created the series detective, popularized the genre a decade before Arthur Conan Doyle, and influenced writers like Agatha Christie and Doyle. She also invented plot devices like “bodies in libraries, newspaper clippings as ‘clews,’ the coroner’s inquest, and expert witnesses.” (Wikipedia)
Her first novel, The Leavenworth Case, was hugely successful and admired by none other than Wilkie Collins, one of the greatest of the Victorian sensation fiction writers. Green’s books were known for their logic and their accurate knowledge of the law—her father was a lawyer. The Leavenworth Case was even used by Yale Law School to show the dangers of relying too much on circumstantial evidence.
Even though Green was erroneously declared the “Mother of Detective Novels” within a decade of her death—that honor actually belongs to Metta Victor, writing under the name Seeley Regester, an ambiguous pseudonym that probably contributed to her being overlooked—Green’s literary star fell precipitously beginning in the 1920s, continuing until the latter decades of the 20th century.
Her florid Victorian writing style proved distasteful to readers used to the modern style of writers like Fitzgerald and Hemingway and the logical puzzle mysteries of writers like S.S. Van Dine and Freeman Wills Crofts. (CrimeReads) Although the criticism of her writing style is fair (An essay for CrimeReads called it “cumbrous” and I agree), excellent stories are contained in her prose. Her plots are twisty and airtight. And a Victorian novel is going to sound Victorian.
There is sexism in the critical analysis of her books at that time. Male writers and critics scorned her while female writers like Agatha Christie and Carolyn Wells sang her praises. The aforementioned Wilkie Collins was still held in high esteem by the same authors deriding Green, despite the similarity of their subject matter and style.
Thankfully, in the 1980s and 90s and continuing into the current century, her work was seen with fresh eyes. Several critical works devoted chapters to her and a biography was released. Like so many female authors sidelined from the literary canon by the very male literary establishment, Green was reclaimed and given her due.
Reading Anna Katharine Green’s Books
Due to this, all of her works are back in print. I read a representative sample for this column—an Amelia Butterworth, a Mr. Gryce, a Caleb Sweetwater, and a collection of Violet Strange short stories. (My favorite.) Her work is difficult to read at first. I could understand it fine, but it took a lot of focus. However, like my experience with Shakespeare, I got the hang of it and was able to read fairly quickly. The plots did the rest.
She has been accused of sentimentalism. I don’t know if I agree about that, but her writing is very melodramatic at times. It fits with the genre and I enjoyed it.
Below, I give you descriptions of the series and the books I read in the order I read them. I believe Green is essential reading for anyone interested in the history of the mystery genre and sensation fiction. Once I became accustomed to reading Victorian literature again, I read them avidly.
I think after reading this column you will agree that we are lucky Ralph Waldo Emerson reacted in a lukewarm fashion to her poetry and Green switched her focus to detective novels.
That Affair Next Door (Amelia Butterworth 1 / Mr. Gryce 8, published 1897)
Spinster Amelia Butterworth joins forces with (really tries to compete with) Green’s detective Ebenezer Gryce in this installment. Miss Butterworth happens to look out her window around midnight and sees a young man and woman enter the Van Burnam house next door. This strikes her as odd, due to the late hour and because the house is closed for the summer. She notes this and that the man leaves soon after on his own, then goes to bed.
The next morning, the house stays shut without signs of life for so long that Miss Butterworth accosts a passing police officer to check the house. No one answers the door, but the cleaning woman arrives and lets him in. Miss Butterworth barges in after the cleaning woman bursts out shouting murder. There is a body in the library, crushed beneath a piece of furniture.
This begins an investigation into one of the strangest, most complicated murders I’ve ever read about, with an equally complicated solution. Green made it work and plugged any potential plot holes, but did depend on coincidence and luck a few times. There is a wonderfully dramatic scene at the end when the culprit is revealed.
Miss Butterworth is a worthy sleuth and main character. She is considered to be the prototype for Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple. Miss Butterworth is smart, funny at times, and believes in herself. She is determined to beat Mr. Gryce to the punch, which leads to many funny scenes between the two.
The Leavenworth Case (Mr. Gryce 1, published 1878)
Prominent philanthropist and businessman Horatio Leavenworth is found dead in his library. He was shot in the head. The death baffles for many reasons—Leavenworth was well-liked, plus the absence of a weapon nearby and the angle of the wound discourage a verdict of suicide. Not only the library but the house was completely locked from the inside.
The culprit must be someone in the house. The suspects include Mr. Leavenworth’s two nieces Mary and Eleanore, his secretary Mr. Trueman Harwell, and the servants. Mary is his heiress, chosen by Mr. Leavenworth on a whim with Eleanore receiving nothing. Amazingly, Eleanore doesn’t seem to resent this and both women love him devotedly. Or do they?
This is Green’s first novel and her most successful. Sales were huge and many luminaries read and praised it. It is considered a classic of the mystery genre. I found it to be compelling and well-plotted. No dependence on coincidence or luck this time. Her writing style is still a bit florid and convoluted, but I found it easier to read. I’m not sure if it actually is or if my brain has become accustomed to Victorian literature again. The dialogue is melodramatic, but again I enjoy that in these types of books.
Mr. Gryce is a likable detective. It is notable to me that he does not narrate his mysteries. Amelia Butterworth is the only one of Green’s sleuths that does so far in my reading. He has some Poirot-like quirks (never looking at the person he’s speaking to but at nearby objects) and is considered the first series detective. He usually shares his cases with a character who narrates (like the young lawyer Everett Raymond in this book), but Amelia Butterworth was the only one to branch out into a series of her own, in which Gryce was still included.
The House of the Whispering Pines (Caleb Sweetwater 3, published 1910)
Elwood Ranelagh sees smoke rising from the chimney of his club The Whispering Pines, which is shut for the winter. He is a caretaker of the place and goes to investigate. He finds the dead body of his fiancée Adelaide Cumberland in an upstairs room—the fiancée he spurned earlier that very evening for her younger sister Carmel, whom he sees descending the stairs of the club right before he goes upstairs and finds Adelaide. Carmel does not see him.
The police arrive and soon charge him with the crime due to his presence at the scene, his connection to the victim, and the fact that a police spy saw him through the window with his hand on the strangled woman’s throat.
At first, his main concern is to protect Carmel, the younger sister, and his new love, from suspicion, even though he assumes she is guilty. But as he sits in jail and Carmel lies in delirium, self-preservation begins to set in.
All of Green’s books that I’ve read (except the Violet Strange collection described below) are divided into four sections called Books. Caleb Sweetwater, whose series this book belongs in, does not show up until the second Book in Whispering Pines. He is from New York and summoned to help with this strange mystery.
Although quite awkward in appearance (the description reminded me a bit of Ichabod Crane), his intelligence and skill at his job quickly overshadow that. I don’t think he is considered the prototype for anyone, but he is an amiable and interesting sleuth. He also mentions Gryce occasionally and appears to be acquainted with him.
This book was markedly easier for me to read. I think it is because of the Gothic atmosphere in the first chapter, but also the fact that Green adapted her style for the modern era. She made it simpler and more straightforward. And the chapters are shorter, thank goodness.
As aforementioned, critics and readers eventually carped about her type of plot and style of writing, but she did adapt somewhat until the 1940s and their hardboiled detectives arrived. By then she was in her 80s, but there was also so much difference between that style and hers that it wouldn’t have been an adaptation, but a complete overhaul. She had her own style and voice and the time for it had unfortunately passed.
The Golden Slipper, and Other Problems for Violet Strange (published 1915)
This is a collection of short stories featuring Green’s girl detective Violet Strange, a progenitor of Nancy Drew and the crop of girl detectives that hit the shelves later in the 20th century. She is a young woman of society but secretly works for a private investigator. Over the course of this book, she moves from investigating non-violent crime to murders but does not reveal the reason she works until the end.
The stories are all titled “Problem,” then a number 1-9 and connected by the thread of Violet’s secret motivation for her detective work.
First of all, I love the name, Violet Strange. It’s perfect for a girl detective, indicating that she is more than the society girl the world knows her as. The stories play her as a reluctant sleuth, but I think part of her enjoys it or is at least drawn to it. For instance, her boss points out to a potential client that she will only work if she’s interested. If nothing else, she’s certainly good at it.
Like Nancy Drew, she was raised by a widowed father. Unlike Nancy, she has siblings and hides her sleuthing from her father and society at large. Her brother knows about it and occasionally assists her when she needs a man along.
Perhaps because of the earlier time period, Violet presents a certain type of personality to the world, hiding her talent for and interest in detection, even from herself. She tries to avoid murder cases, insisting they are unseemly (she refers to them as “sordid” and “befouled spider webs”) and insists that she has a good reason for the work, but she can’t reveal it yet.
I can believe her squeamishness about murder, but why would she choose to do detective work? There were other, more socially acceptable, ways to make money, although, to be fair, any kind of work by someone of Violet’s station might have caused a scandal. She is of the type who debuts, finds a husband, marries, and has kids. In fact, her father already has a husband in mind for her.
Violet delights and fascinates me. I love her style, independence, and the way she stands up for herself. Even in society, she is considered a tad quirky, but in an attractive, acceptable way. She does not narrate her stories, which surprised me at first. They are told from a third-person omniscient point of view. Now I wonder if this was yet another way Green made her young female sleuth acceptable to audiences: by withholding her inner monologue and refusing to let her tell her own story, perhaps even implying that Violet didn’t want to.
These stories focus on howdunnit rather than who, putting even more focus on the young sleuth and giving us very clever modes of murder. Some of them do not even name the criminal, but end with Violet’s solution and saying the culprit was caught or would soon be. They were the easiest to read of all. The prose and dialogue are very straightforward. This lets Green’s talent at plotting really shine through.
A Complex Woman
Even though Violet is a feminist heroine for her time, Green’s status in that regard is more dubious. She opposed women’s suffrage, expressing particular abhorrence for violent demonstrations by suffragettes.
However, she was a pioneering writer, who continued in her work after marrying in her late 30s and having three children. She and her husband also enjoyed a remarkably happy, egalitarian, and supportive marriage for the time, involving themselves in each other’s careers.
Her husband was an actor who appeared in an adaptation of The Leavenworth Case, as well as a furniture and industrial designer. He even designed a chair for her with an extra-wide right arm for her notebook, which a famous photo shows her sitting in. He listed her as “co-designer” on his work and reviewed her new writing every night.
She supported women’s right to work and have more power and independence, but her views became more complicated beyond that. She also opposed class distinctions, marrying a man who was her equal in intelligence and interests, rather than one of her social standing. He was younger than her, too.
Before reading and researching for this article, I had only read one Violet Strange story included in an anthology on Project Gutenberg. It left me wanting more. I’m glad I learned about this complex woman and read a few of her works. I plan to read more and hope I’ve inspired some of you to do so as well.
“The Art of Murder: Anna Katharine Green” in Women Writers and Detectives in Nineteenth-Century Crime Fiction – The Mothers of the Mystery Genre by Lucy Sussex
“Anna Katharine Green” on Wikipedia https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anna_Katharine_Green
Tell us in the comments: Have you ever read anything by Anna Katharine Green?
Sara Farmer lives in Austin, TX, with her husband, three kids, and two cats. When she’s not chasing kids and cats, she reads and writes mysteries. You can find her at www.kittymomma.com and on Twitter @avonlea79.