THE LEAVENWORTH CASE by Anna Katherine Green
“And here let me say that Mr. Gryce, the detective, was not the thin, wiry individual with a shrewd eye that seems to plunge into the core of your being and pounce at once upon its hidden secret that you are doubtless expecting to see. Mr. Gryce was a portly, comfortable personage with an eye that never pounced, that did not even rest — on you. If it rested anywhere, it was always on some insignificant object in your vicinity, some vase, inkstand, book, or button. These things he would seem to take into his confidence, make the repositories of his conclusions, but you — you might as well be the steeple on Trinity Church, for all the connection you ever appeared to have with him or his thoughts.”
Review by Kirstin Merrihew (AUG 6, 2010)
In 1917, the august and eccentric Sherlock Holmes was sent a letter by his American precursor detective, Ebenezer Gryce, warmly extending sympathy for a shared suffering of rheumatism, and winkingly offering hope that Conan Doyle would give to Sherlock as clever an assistant as Anna Katharine Green had to Ebenezer, casting gentle aspersions on Dr. Watson! Naturally, it was really Green who was tweaking Doyle in good fun. She and Doyle had met in Buffalo, New York in 1894 when Sherlock’s creator toured the U.S, delivering lectures. He couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see the lady who debuted her series sleuth nearly a decade before the Holmes stories began.
That first Green novel, The Leavenworth Case, was originally published in 1878 and became a bestseller in America. It even caused some political-correctness-of-the-day commotion when the gentlemen of the Pennsylvania Legislature hotly debated the whether “the story was manifestly beyond a woman’s powers.” Some of them thought the novel had actually been written by a man using a woman’s nom de plume. But these doubting gentlemen were quite wrong in their chauvinistic suspicions. Not only was Anna Katharine Green capable of writing one popular detective story, but she authored nearly forty others over a forty-five year span ending in 1923. Although she retired from writing then, she lived until age 88 — another twelve years. Unfortunately, in the decades following her death, her works gradually ceded to subsequent genre authors such as Agatha Christie, and Green (and Gryce) was nearly forgotten.
Back now to the specifics of Green’s first novel. Actually, Gryce, unlike Holmes, worked with more than one “assistant” in the course of several novels and short stories. But as Michael Sims notes in the introduction, Gryce’s “Watson” in The Leavenworth Case was a, “intelligent, passionate, and impulsive lawyer who bounds across the countryside sniffing for clues.” His name was Everett Raymond, and sly Gryce let him do much of the legwork while the older detective gathered the evidence, fit the pieces together, and unmasked the murderer. Raymond also narrated most of the tale, stepping aside briefly to allow two other key characters to tell their stories.
Raymond gets involved in the case of the murder of wealthy New York businessman Horatio Leavenworth when Leavenworth’s private secretary bursts into his law office looking for the absent senior partner who generally handles the Leavenworth legalities and blurts out the horrible news. Raymond follows the other man to the Leavenworth mansion where he meets Ebenezer Gryce already on the case. Raymond is there to see to the legal protection of Leavenworth’s two beautiful adopted daughters. But before he speaks with them, he views the murder scene and attends the coroner’s inquest which is being held in the house. Raymond becomes aware that the circumstances of the crime pretty much limit the suspects to those who were in the house the previous night. And he realizes that the two daughters — one of whom was set to inherit nearly all of her adoptive father’s estate and the other who was going to receive nearly nothing — are emerging as the strongest suspects, particularly since neither is willing to say much in the way of a defense.
After Raymond meets the two young women, he finds himself deeply attracted to one and determined to prove her innocence despite her lack of cooperation. He and Gryce form a loose investigative partnership and compare notes and theories at intervals. Raymond, along with one of Gryce’s agents — called simply “Q” — tries to find a young woman named Hannah who disappeared from the Leavenworth house sometime around the time of the murder. He also looks into Leavenworth’s background and that of a mysterious Britisher with the name of Clavering.
The plot takes quite a few sharp turns, keeping the reader guessing about actions, motives, and the final outcome. Quite a few reviewers in the past have referred to this and other Green novels as melodramatic and stilted in style. The Leavenworth Case is written with a Victorian flair for long “sermons” on rectitude and correct but snooty social behavior. But, again in Michael Sims’ words, “…if outbreaks of Victorian emotion were fatal, all of Dickens’s characters would have expired long ago.” He adds, “Now and then her storytelling is as leisurely as you would expect from a nineteenth-century novel, but mostly the story dashes at a pace that dazzled her contemporaries. She zips through many a scene like an indie film director.”
Modern novelists tend to push the envelope when it comes to recounting behavior but don’t often judge their characters per se. Green, a woman of her time was no relativist, and she believed in using literature to deliver messages about right and wrong. In an interview she gave she said, “Root out Self and you would practically eliminate crime.” She meant that selfishness was the root of all crime. The Leavenworth Case aptly illustrates that conviction. But Green wasn’t of the opinion that people couldn’t change…at least in some cases. One Leavenworth character in particular sees the path to destruction on which they are traveling and they pull off into a very different avenue. Others, however, meet sad ends or even go quite bonkers. But the formula of a detective story that deals with a finite number of suspects and is ultimately solved is here a genre forerunner, not a copycat. It also observes the “cozy” mystery format of concluding on a happy note.
It is great to see Penguin Classics release this new edition of Green’s first novel, because, despite its Victorian stilt, this really is a well plotted whodunit, and a fascinating introduction to Ebenezer Gryce, a worthy competitor for Sherlock Holmes and a character who really deserves a renaissance with mystery readers, especially here in his native America.
|AMAZON READER RATING:||from 2 readers|
|PUBLISHER:||Penguin Classics (April 27, 2010)|
|AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK?||Not Yet|
|AUTHOR WEBSITE:||Wikipedia page on Anna Katherine Green|
|EXTRAS:||Project Gutenberg books — also many books available for the Kindle|
|MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION:||Another classic mystery series:
The House Without a Key by Earl Derr Biggers
(Note: I pieced this together from research on the ‘net and not confident that is 100% correct.)
Ebenezer Gryce series:
- The Leavenworth Case (1878; April 2010)
- A Strange Disappearance (1880)
- The Sword of Damocles (1881)
- Hand and Ring (1983)
- A Matter of Millions (1891)
- TheÂ Doctor, His Wife, and the Clock (1895)
- That Affair Next Door (1897)
- Lost Man’s Lane: A Second Episode in the Life of Amelia Butterworth (1898)
- Agatha Webb (1899)
- The Circular Study (1900)
- One of My Sons (1901)
- Initials Only (1911)
- The Mystery of the Hasty Arrow (1917)
- The Mill Mystery (1886)
- Behind Closed Doors (1888)
- The Forsaken Inn (1890)
- Cynthia Wakeham’s Money (1892)
- Marked “Personal” (1893)
- Miss Hurd–An Enigma (1894)
- Dr. Izard (1895)
- The Filigree Ball (1903)
- The Millionaire Baby (1905)
- The Woman in the Alcove (1906)
- The Mayor’s Wife (1907)
- The Chief Lagatee (1907)
- The House of the Whispering Pines (1910)
- Three Thousand Dollars (1910)
- The Dark Hollow (1914)
- The Golden Slipper and Other Problems of Violet Strange (1915)
- The Step on the Stair (1923)