Earlier this summer, Penguin published a book titled The Leavenworth Case, by noted mystery writer Anna Katherine Green. Never heard of her? How can that be? Okay, I confess, I had not heard of her either, the reason being that her books predated my reading of mystery novels by the better part of 100 years. Among hardcore mystery aficionados, however, Green is known as “The Mother of the Detective Novel”; in fact, The Leavenworth Case, her debut novel, was published in 1878, nine years before the first appearance of legendary English sleuth Sherlock Holmes! Green went on to publish thirty-six novels over the run of her impressive career, and upon her death in 1935, at age eighty-eight, Publisher’s Weekly reported that her first book had sold more than one million copies!
The Leavenworth Case was a watershed novel in several respects: it marked the initial installment in what would become the first series of mysteries featuring a recurring main character (Police Detective Ebenezer Gryce), and it launched the first major detective novelist, whose career would span some forty-five years.
My long-time friend and fellow mystery devotee Michael Sims wrote the introduction to the Penguin edition, wherein he noted that even at that seminal stage of the genre, Green was not the first woman to write a detective novel: “Apparently that honor goes to American dime novelist Metra Victoria Fuller Victor, who published The Dead Letter, in 1867 under the pseudonym Seeley Regester.” It was Green who rose to fame, though, eclipsing all other female suspense novelists of her time, and many of the men as well: “Green became so well known that, during his first tour of America in the 1890s, Arthur Conan Doyle sought a meeting with her.” Another Green character, spinster Amelia Butterworth, was credited as inspiration for Agatha Christie’s wildly popular protagonist Miss Marple. Indeed, in later years, Christie’s leading man Hercule Poirot held forth on The Leavenworth Case in her 1963 novel Clocks: “One savours its period atmosphere, its studied and deliberate melodrama.”
To be sure, there is period atmosphere in spades. Anyone familiar with Christie’s early work will feel right at home in the Leavenworth townhouse, with its butler and serving staff, its pair of comely young mistresses (both of whom are leading suspects in the shooting death of their wealthy uncle), and of course the requisite dead body or two. The tale is narrated by a somewhat over-earnest young attorney, Everett Raymond, who has something of an agenda of his own after meeting and becoming infatuated with one of the Leavenworth nieces. Sims notes: “Raymond is an excellent point-of-view character. Driven by emotion but determined to employ his professional brain in the cause of justice, he pays close attention, thinks aloud, and inaugurates what will become a detective story tradition: he regularly summarizes the clues glimpsed so far.”
Don’t be put off by the age of The Leavenworth Case; it is easily as contemporary in style as the Agatha Christie novels that followed it some fifty years later. Also, most if not all of the modern mystery components can be found between its covers: the beleaguered and world-weary detective; the ingénue (or, in this case, two ingénues) identified as prime suspect(s); the beginnings of the first-person narrative; and, naturally, red herrings galore.