How secure and comfortable the Victorian middle classes seemed, playing cricket through summer, reading their papers beside the fire through the winter, safe in the knowledge that they were the decent, fair-minded rulers of the free world.
How did a forgotten American writer become known as “the mother of the detective novel”? Anna Katharine Green was an attorney’s daughter, born in Brooklyn in 1846, and while she held some progressive views she disapproved of women’s suffrage, disliking feminist writers, so it’s ironic that she ended up trailblazing at a time when popular fiction was dominated by men.
Her first novel was The Leavenworth Case, published in 1878. It was championed by Wilkie Collins and became a huge hit. Edgar Allan Poe may have invented the detective story in 1841’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue, but Green’s influence and reputation became so great that Arthur Conan Doyle made a special visit to her during his US trip.
Green’s novel, which involves a case of wrongful suspicion in a murder, was highly regarded for its insight into legal procedure, and was used at Yale as an example of the dangers of relying on circumstantial evidence. But it also conforms to the demands of Victorian popular fiction, complete with over-ripe exclamations, red herrings, sinister strangers, lost keys and torn-up letters. What differentiates it from British equivalents is its snappy pacing, even if Green’s investigator seems slower-witted than his readers. Her detective, Ebenezer Gryce of the New York police, is helped by an interfering society spinster called Amelia Butterworth, who seems to have set the tone for generations of amateur sleuths to come, including Miss Marple.
The Leavenworth Case went on to sell 750,000 copies. Green continued to write throughout her life, producing 40 novels, nearly all of which are out of print. But was she really the mother of detective fiction? The American crime novel expert Otto Penzler says she’s out on a technicality, because 12 years earlier another woman, Seeley Regester, wrote The Dead Letter. And that date places her just four years after the world’s first actual detective novel – The Notting Hill Mystery by Charles Warren Adams. The key to all this is the semantic difference between “detective” and “crime” fiction.
More importantly, how readable are any of these books now? Well, if you place yourself in a suitably melodramatic frame of mind, Green isn’t at all bad, and as we still honour and read Wilkie Collins, why have we forgotten a woman who got to be one of the first in the field?
Christopher Fowler’s 11th Bryant & May novel, ‘The Bleeding Heart’, is published on 27 March by Doubleday
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