5.2.12

Anna Katharine Green's The Leavenworth Case


Anna Katharine Green, “the mother of the detective novel,” wrote 35 turn-of-the-twentieth-century mystery novels. The daughter of a prominent New York criminal lawyer, Green used her familiarity with criminal and legal matters to create detective fiction characterized by technical accuracy and realistic procedural details (Maida 1998, 449-51). The Leavenworth Case – Green’s first mystery – took six years to write. It became an immediate best-seller, sold over a million copies during her lifetime, and was successfully dramatized. Green’s own husband was one of the actors in the play. The novel was praised by readers and critics on both sides of the Atlantic and was even used at Yale Law School to demonstrate the weaknesses of circumstantial evidence.

Green was one of the earliest creators of the detective series. Although Ebenezer Gryce (a New York police detective) was her most popular protagonist, Amelia Butterworth (forerunner of Miss Marple – see my post on Murder at the Vicarage) and Violet Strange (forerunner of Nancy Drew – see my post) were also eagerly read by mystery readers. It is not surprising that Green, one of the few nineteenth-century women to earn a university degree, created female detectives who challenged the female stereotype of the period.

Detective Gryce makes his first appearance in The Leavenworth Case. He works with junior lawyer, Everett Raymond, to solve the surprising murder of a wealthy New Yorker who is found dead in his library. Immediate suspects are his two beautiful nieces, Eleanore and Mary, one of whom will inherit his fortune. This locked-room mystery is skillfully plotted.

Green’s use of a “coroner’s inquest, expert testimony, scientific ballistic evidence, a schematic drawing of the crime scene, a reconstructed letter, and the first suspicious butler” anticipates many of the features used by subsequent mystery novels (DuBose 2000, 7). She also used a number of other themes and techniques that became standard elements in the detective novel: the murder in a library, a narrator who is an assistant to the detective, newspaper accounts of the case, wills and a large inheritance, a second murder that heightens the mystery, and a final confrontation scene that prompts a confession.

Just as, nine years later, Conan Doyle used Watson as a foil to Homes (see my post on The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes), Green used Raymond to highlight the superior detective work of Gryce. The choice of narrator is also, as Peterson observes, an effective method of sustaining suspense: “Raymond is clearly enamored of Eleanore at first sight, giving rise to some ingenious ambiguities as suspicion falls upon each of the characters in turn in a brilliant whodunit pattern” (1984, 190).

Green, as Maida points out, provided an important link between Edgar Allan Poe (see my post on his detective stories) and his American ancestors, influencing the direction that subsequent writers would take:
Green did not adopt Poe’s short story form or his detective, M. Auguste Dupin – an upper class, intellectual Frenchman. Instead she made an original contribution, choosing the novel as her form, America as her setting, and an American policeman as her detective. (1989, 6)
Although Green’s use of mystery techniques is surprisingly modern, her style of writing is moralistic and stilted at times. Despite this drawback, the clever plotting keeps the narrative interesting.

Green also captured the mood and key concerns of her time:
Money and status motivated the burgeoning middle class and nouveaux riches of New York City – Green tapped into these forces in her plots. The majority of her fiction involves money – the loss of it, the need for it, the crime that comes from greed. (Maida 1998, 451)
With the publication of The Leavenworth Case, Green helped shape the detective novel model that was used for the next half century.

DuBose, Martha Hailey. Women of Mystery: The Lives and Works of Notable Women Crime Novelists. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2000.

Green, Anna Katharine. The Leavenworth Case. 1878. London: George Routledge and Sons, 1897.

Maida, Patricia D. “Anna Katharine Green (1846-1935).” In Mystery and Suspense Writers: The Literature of Crime, Detection, and Espionage, edited by Robin W. Winks, vol. 1: 449-71. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1998.

------. Mother of Detective Fiction: The Life and Works of Anna Katharine Green. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1989.

Peterson, Audrey. Victorian Masters of Mystery: From Wilkie Collins to Conan Doyle. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1984.