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ANNA KATHARINE GREEN (1846-1935)

Often referred to as the mother of detective fiction, Anna Katharine Green deserves her distinction. Her accomplishments included the establishment and refining of many of the conventions of the genre that we now take for granted, and-along with depicting a male police detective-the creation of two of the earliest women sleuths in fiction. A contemporary of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, this New Yorker produced both police procedurals and private-investigator fiction. The heart of Green's literary career, which provided the main support for her family, spanned two decades on each side of the turn of the century.

While Conan Doyle was developing the civilian sleuth, Green wrote one of the first authentic police procedurals, The Leavenworth Case: A Lawyer's Story, in 1878. In this hugely successful first novel, she followed the work of New York City police detective Ebenezer Gryce. It might be noted that Gryce's reasoning is sometimes dubious. (For example, he clears a niece of suspicion when he sees lint from a cleaning cloth on the cylinder of the murder weapon. A woman, he declares, would fire a pistol but never clean it.)

The Leavenworth Case is said to be the first detective novel written by a woman under her own name. It is notable not only for the sleuth's reliance on reason to solve the case but also for pointing out the problems inherent in undue reliance on circumstantial evidence. The Yale Law School assigned it as required reading, and it sold a million copies in Green's day.

Gryce appeared in more than a dozen novels, often in the company of other series characters, including the sometimes rivalrous Caleb Sweetwater and the spinster-sleuth Amelia Butterworth. This last, a middle-age, upper-middle-class, middlebrow detective, is a prototype for Agatha Christie's Miss Jane Marple and other female amateur investigators of the golden age of detective fiction.

Violet Strange, who appears in Missing: Page Thirteen, is less staunch than Butterworth but more determined to make a paying career of the detective business. She pursues her work in order to pay for her widowed sister's voice lessons, an enterprise so frowned upon by their father that he has disowned Strange's sister. In order to avoid a similar fate, Strange keeps her sleuthing secret. An active social life provides her with entree into households where family wealth walks hand in hand with family secrets, where the atmosphere is Gothic, and where intuition guides her interpretation of evidence acquired through earnest-and sometimes courageous-resourcefulness. As do Green's novels, this tale illuminates social conventions oppressive to women.


The Doomdorf Mystery | The Oxford Book of American Detective Stories | c