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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
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The Figure Eight (1869) includes the same brand of stock characters as its predecessor--the gallant but misunderstood narrator, his kind elderly benefactor, an evil rival in love, and women of beauty, innocence, and nobility--but it is a more successful novel. It begins with a body in the library: the uncle of narrator Joe Meredith, a country doctor who had recently returned from California with $60,000 in gold bars intended to pay off a mortgage and retire from medical practice. The victim, poisoned by prussic acid in a glass of port, leaves a dying message: a scribble that includes the figure eight of the title. The gold has disappeared, and the narrator is accused of the crime. The characters, including a Mrs. Danvers-like governess and the victim's young Cuban wife, are more complex and less predictable than those in The Dead Letter, but the detection is no more advanced. Don't expect any great revelation on the meaning of that dying message. The novel exemplifies the mystery as social history, including the hero's resolve during his exile on the western frontier to make a killing in real estate.

FOR MANY YEARS, before scholars unearthed Victor's work, Anna Katharine Green was regarded as the first woman to write a detective novel--indeed, as the first American mystery novelist of either sex. Her 1878 novel The Leavenworth Case has been almost universally recognized as a milestone, and all the early, mostly male historians of the form acknowledged her pioneering status. The two novels chosen for reprint exemplify one of Green's many innovations: the spinster sleuth, later to be explored by writers as various as Mary Roberts Rinehart, Agatha Christie, and Stuart Palmer.

In That Affair Next Door (1897), wealthy Manhattan resident Amelia Butterworth becomes suspicious late one evening when she sees a man take a young woman into the seemingly closed house next door and shortly leave without her. When the woman's body is found crushed under a heavy cabinet, Amelia ponders the eternal question of mystery fiction: Was it accident, suicide, or murder? A semicomic figure who reveals herself more than she intends in her first-person narrative, Amelia enthusiastically probes the complicated relationships of her neighbors and offers help to Ebenezer Gryce, the elderly policeman of earlier Green novels. The novel is leisurely paced but not padded, and the detecting rivalry of amateur and professional is humorously and sensitively managed. Much of its careful plotting and attention to detail would be at home in a formal detective novel of decades later, though the final solution comes from a witness with an explanation anticipated by neither Gryce nor Butterworth. The surprise killer, though probably anticipated by latter-day readers, must have been a sensation in 1897.

Amelia gradually wins Gryce's grudging respect, to the extent of becoming involved at his invitation in Lost Man's Lane (1898), about a series of broad-daylight disappearances in a New York mountain village. With mysterious noises in a houseful of secrets and the legend of a phantom coach, the novel is much more in the gothic tradition than the superior That Affair Next Door. A frankly preposterous story, with a broadly painted least-suspected-person culprit and at one point a highly unlikely disguise for Gryce, it is a lesser book than its predecessor, though not devoid of interest.

HISTORICAL IMPORTANCE APART, has Green become merely a museum piece? Some 1940s commentators, including Howard Haycraft and Ellery Queen, would have said so on the basis of her florid Victorian style. But perhaps they were too close in time to appreciate what then was merely out of fashion. On the basis of these two novels, Green can be accessible and rewarding today to the right reader.

In the early years of the twentieth century, American women ceded none of their preeminence. Green continued producing into the 1920s and by the beginning of World War I had been joined by the hugely successful Mary Roberts Rinehart, who would remain a perennial bestseller into the 1950s, and the less well-remembered (but celebrated in her time) Carolyn Wells, among other female American detective novelists. By the 1930s, such writers as Leslie Ford, Mignon G. Eberhart, Elizabeth Sanxay Holding, and Phoebe Atwood Taylor had launched long and successful careers. In the 1940s came Craig Rice, Margaret Millar, Dorothy Salisbury Davis, Charlotte Armstrong, and Helen McCloy, among many others.