Cherchez les Femmes
From the July 5 / July 12, 2004 issue: The American tradition of mystery novels by women.
Jul 5, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 41 • By JON L. BREEN
The Dead Letter & The Figure Eight
That Affair Next Door & Lost Man's Lane
Painted for the Kill
Corpse de Ballet
In a Lonely Place
Revisionist history sometimes becomes conventional wisdom. Consider this proposition, now universally accepted as truth: While British women long ruled the mystery roost, their American sisters were a downtrodden underclass in a genre dominated by bullying hardboiled males. Or try this, which most of those who comment on mystery fiction seem to believe: American women pioneers in the development of the detective novel have been ignored or marginalized by mostly masculine historians and scholars. Or this: Strong, self-sufficient non-spinster female detectives were unknown in fiction before the 1970s. Or, finally, this: Pulp fiction is some kind of prestigious and mysterious old boys' club.
As it happens, all of these are false. But the truth doesn't seem to fit the story that people want to tell about the field of crime fiction, and so the facts seem to go out the window. Introducing one of two recent omnibus volumes by the American detective novel's two most important nineteenth-century pioneers, Catherine Ross Nickerson asserts that most historians of the detective story begin with the American Edgar Allan Poe but "go on to trace the development of the detective novel in the work of British writers ...[and] tend to return to the American scene only with the arrival of the hard-boiled style in the 1920s."
While one of her subjects, Metta Fuller Victor (1831-1885), has only recently been recognized for her historic role, the other, Anna Katharine Green (1846-1935), has long been celebrated for her seminal status and renders the sweeping statement inaccurate.
Victor, who wrote her two early novels under the name "Seeley Regester," genuinely does deserve credit as the first American detective novelist--but with an asterisk. The Dead Letter (1867) begins with Richard Redfield, a postal employee in Washington, finding a cryptic letter dated two years earlier that sheds light on a mystery that has virtually destroyed his life. By opening the story with the finding of the letter before introducing a flashback to the events leading up to it, Victor gives the reader the illusion of a story set in motion by an incredible coincidence (fictionally acceptable) rather than resolved by one (fictionally unacceptable).
Two years before, Redfield was a student in the offices of lawyer John Argyll and in love with his benefactor's daughter Eleanor, whose fiancé Henry Moreland is found stabbed to death while en route to the Argyll home. The novel has enough of the essential elements to qualify as a detective story. Burton, the Great Detective figure, introduced as taciturn but increasingly garrulous as the story goes on, "chooses such cases as demand...the benefit of his rare powers." The final revelation of the criminal (which can hardly have surprised the readers of its time much more than it will today's) comes in a gathering of the suspects. The novel keeps a consistent focus on the case, apart from romantic interludes. But in place of real detection, Victor resorts to parlor tricks and supernatural visions. When Burton makes Sherlock Holmes-like deductions from the handwriting of a letter, the reader must take his graphological acuity on faith, since no explanations are given. Some of Burton's detection comes via the gifts of his clairvoyant eleven-year-old daughter.
Though hard sledding for a reader of today, the novel is well enough written to show the author was good in her time, and the social and domestic details are instructive. The Irish servant class is stereotyped as superstitious and over-emotional, with their dialect presented in tiresome phonetic transcription. Modern marvels include train travel and photography to aid identification. A long sea voyage is needed to travel to California to track down a clue. The publisher's back-cover blurb claims "a background of post-Civil War politics," but nothing of the kind appears--indeed, the action takes place in the late 1850s, before the Civil War.