Several months back, I read one of the earliest works of British mystery & suspense: Wilkie Collins‘ The Woman in White, which has recently celebrated its 150th anniversary. This weekend, I indulged another pleasure by finishing up one of the earliest American detective novels: Anna Katherine Green‘s The Leavenworth Case, just released in a handsome new Penguin Classics edition and featuring a winning introduction by Michael Sims. Collins’ success undoubtedly influenced Green, and it’s fascinating to see some of the similarities between the books: young men’s obsessions with hauntingly beautiful young ladies (and then a woman or two secreted off into hiding for one reason or another); a focus on marital issues and intrigue; questions about legal quandaries; a examination of class differences and difficulties; and of course — throughout — nothing ever being quite what it appears. But while Collins’ book remains awfully impressive in its sesquicentennial year, I have to say that I better enjoyed the far brisker pace of The Leavenworth Case.
Green wastes no time jumping into the case itself, bringing forth news on the first page of the dead body of wealthy old Horatio Leavenworth and launching soon after into a coroner’s inquest that quickly lays out the chief clues, the principal suspects, and the pressing questions that will dominate the bulk of the narrative. Additionally, Green offers up in Everett Raymond one of the first lawyer narrators of the genre (and still one of the best I can attest, after having recently (for whatever reason) wandered through a number of such books, including Robert Traver’s Anatomy of a Murder (meandering), John Moritmer’s Rumpole of the Bailey (magical), and Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent (masterful), among others).
For many years, The Leavenworth Case seemed to hold a number of distinctions — first American detective novel, first detective novel by a woman in any country — but while critics have since nuanced those claims, Green’s book still stands tallest for its wide and rampant popularity, the first book of a career that spanned nearly five decades. And in her detective, old Ebenezer Gryce, she gives us not just the first series investigator in American literature but also one of the most memorable. In his introduction, Sims offers a great analysis of Gryce, differentiating him from his precursor, Inspector Cuff, in Collins’ other best-known novel, The Moonstone, and then revealing how nicely Gryce prefigured Sherlock Holmes, who would make his debut nine years later. Additionally, Sims details the esteem in which Green was held by later greats in the mystery field; fans included both Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie, who (as Sims notes) had her own famous detective Hercule Poirot discuss The Leavenworth Case in one of her own books. (And there are more than a few hints of some lineage from Gryce to Holmes to Poirot — and also from another of Green’s creations, spinster Amelia Butterworth, to Christie’s Miss Jane Marple.)
As a devotee of mystery fiction, I’m a little embarrassed not to have read The Leavenworth Case before now. Other than excerpts while reading about Green, my only direct exposure to her work had previously been the story “Missing: Page 13” from her collection The Golden Slippers, and Other Problems for Violet Strange, a series of tales featuring a charming young investigator struggling to find her way in what P.D. James would decades later call an unsuitable job for a woman. (Enticingly enough, that entire collection is currently available for free in a Kindle edition from Amazon.) But I’m glad to have finally experienced Green’s delightful debut novel under Sims’ guidance, and I can only encourage others in the same direction here.