Monday, December 18, 2017

*closing out the 1870s: The Leavenworth Case, by Anna Katherine Green

Penguin, 2010
originally published 1878
326 pp


No look back at early crime/detective/mystery fiction would be complete without talking about The Leavenworth Case, which is a true landmark in the genre.  In this book the author introduces the first American series detective, Ebenezer Gryce, of the New York Metropolitan Police force, who would go on to be involved in eleven more cases.  But it is also, as Kate Watson notes in her book Women Writing Crime Fiction, 1860-1880, 
"innovative in the introduction of a number of a number of themes and tropes, now familiar to the reader of crime fiction, but then new and exciting. The Leavenworth Case is original in its deployment of ballistics, science, medicine, and a coroner's inquest, the illustration of the crime scene, replica letters, and the inclusion of the locked room mystery.  There is a diagram of the murder scene and the layout of the library, hall and bedroom, a ploy familiar to modern readers of the Golden Age detective fiction of Agatha Christie.  While some of these elements had appeared in earlier criminography, the way in which Green cleverly combines them locates her text as the forerunner of what Knight has called the clue-puzzle mystery." (122)
In short,  The Leavenworth Case occupies a sort of transitional space -- here we find a beginning in the movement toward more modern mystery/crime/detective fiction. And by the way, Sherlock Holmes hasn't appeared on the scene yet and won't for nearly a decade, but as Watson tells us,  "In the wake of Green, women writing crime became almost commonplace in America," listing several women authors, many of them now faded into the fabric of obscurity,  who went on to contribute "to the form after The Leavenworth Case."  (130)

Although the story is told from a first-person point of view, the narrator is not Detective Gryce, but rather a junior partner in a law firm named Everett Raymond.  As the story opens, Raymond has received news that Mr. Leavenworth has been murdered, "shot through the head by some unknown person while sitting at his library table."   There is to be a coroner's inquest, and Leavenworth's two young nieces Eleanore and Mary need someone to be present in an advisory capacity.  The senior member of the firm is Leavenworth's best friend, but he is temporarily absent, so Raymond takes the job upon himself.  When Raymond arrives at the Leavenworth home, he is met at the door by Mr. Gryce, who takes Raymond to the scene of the crime.  When Raymond asks who Mr. Gryce suspects, his answer is "Everybody and nobody."  However, the circumstances of the murder reveal that it must have been someone in the Leavenworth house; as we learn more about possible motives, the evidence begins piling up against Eleanore.  Everyone is questioned, with the exception of one of the maids, Hannah, who has now mysteriously disappeared.  Raymond finds himself dazzled by Eleanore, and can't bring himself to believe that she had anything to do with it, but Eleanore isn't helping matters much -- she obviously seems to know something, but refuses to talk.  In fact, Eleanore isn't the only one in the Leavenworth house who is keeping quiet, and with each new clue uncovered, things become more desperate.  Mr. Gryce, though, has a suggestion for Mr. Raymond: he would like the attorney to do some detecting on his own, to play "the mole" in an effort to get to the bottom of what's actually going on.  As he notes, it's not something he can easily do himself:
"Mr. Raymond...have you any idea of the disadvantages under which a detective labors? For instance now, you imagine that I can insinuate myself into all sorts of society perhaps, but you are mistaken. Strange as it may appear, I have never by any possibility of means succeeded with one class of persons at all. I cannot pass myself off for a gentleman...
...When we are in want of a gentleman to work for us, we have to go outside of our profession." (104-105). 
 And although Raymond is somewhat aghast at serving as a "spy," he agrees.  Trying to defend Eleanore by seeking the truth of events leads Raymond into a maze of secrets -- but will his findings prove Eleanore innocent or will they add further weight to what seems to be the evidence of her guilt?

from Blue Ridge Vintage
The Leavenworth Case is truly a whodunit, and unlike my bad luck with modern crime novels, I had absolutely no clue as to the identity of the murderer until the very end.  There is much to enjoy about this book -- a preponderance of clues that slowly appear, several people with motive to do away with the deceased, and a number of secrets to be unlocked as the story goes along.  And then there are the numerous themes that Green works into her narrative, for example, as Michael Sims notes in his introduction, "female dependence and inheritance laws;" an examination of class constraints are also obvious here.  If you enjoy books that turn on secrets then this a good one; I'm someone who just loves this sort of thing.  I will admit that the reluctance of the characters to spill what they know got a bit frustrating after a time, and I will also say that some readers unfamiliar with writing during this period might become tired of  the rather florid writing style in parts or the more melodramatic aspects of the story that crop up here and there.  But in the long run, I found it to be a fine mystery, one I couldn't put down.

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