Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Leavenworth Case: Review

The Leavenworth Case was written by Anna Katharine Green and originally published in 1878--nine years before Doyle's A Study in Scarlet. It is often considered the first full-length detective story written by a woman. It was an enormous success with the public, reportedly selling more than 750,000 copies in its first decade and a half, and, for nearly half a century, Anna Katharine Green was one of America's most popular authors. She wrote many other novels, but what reputation she has today rests on this foundational detective story--noted by mystery authority Howard Haycraft as "one of the true milestones of the genre."

Green managed to introduce in her novel many of the mystery standbys that fans of the the genre will recognize at once: the crusty old man on the verge of changing his will, the body in the library, a dignified butler, coroners' inquest (called and arranged in what seems to be whirlwind haste), ballistics expert pinpointing the weapon used, a scene-of-the-crime sketch, and mysterious letters. Readers of today may sigh at some of these components, but would do well to remember how fresh these clues and incidents were in Victorian-era American crime fiction.

Green's story is narrated by Everett Raymond, junior member of the law firm which has represented the Leavenworth family for many years. At face value, the story seems a simple one. Horatio Leavenworth, a rich merchant and adoptive parent and guardian to his two nieces, mary and Eleanore, is found shot to death at the table in the library of his home. All the doors are locked and everything points to a member of the household. More specifically, evidence--a broken key, an incriminating letter, an overheard bit of conversation would seem to point towards the nieces and the behavior of Eleanore at the coroner's inquest soon draws the attention of police, reporters and nearly everyone present.

Raymond, struck by the beauty and plight of the nieces--and particularly drawn to Eleanore, determines to aid Ebenenezer Gryce of the Metropolitan Police in bringing the proper party to justice. It is the work of these two with the assistance of "Q," one of Gryce's operatives that soon brings to light secret relationships, the intention of Horatio Leavenworth to change his will, and the mysterious goings-on the night of the murder when everyone is supposed to have retired to their rooms. The story culminates in a wrap-up scene worthy of the many Golden Age drawing room finales. We even get the criminal's confession with a bit of a twist.

Slow-going in parts due to the Victorian style, this is still a gripping story about the tragedy of love, greed, self-sacrifice and betrayal. It is a very complex tale with several layers and a well-built element of suspense. It has also been held up as a prime example of the fallacy of circumstantial evidence--evidence that given certain twists to circumstance is made to fit several different characters for the role of prime suspect. I thoroughly enjoyed myself once I gave myself up to Green's style and found this classic mystery to be every bit the equal of the Sherlock Holmes canon. Four stars.


Gypsi said...

I read this one last month and thoroughly enjoyed it. I'm glad to see other people trying her as well!

J F Norris said...

I'm always happy to see people reading the really old mysteries. This one is kind of a landmark in the genre.

I started collecting her books many moons ago. I have THE LEAVENWORTH CASE but never got to it. I've only read THE FILIGREE BALL (with an ingenious deathtrap as the murder method) and THE MYSTERY OF THE HASTY ARROW (unusual impossible crime of murder committed with a bow and arrow in the corridor of a crowded museum). Like Mary Roberts Rinehart, Green could be surprisingly violent in concocting her crimes. I keep wanting to get to all the others I have, but...well, you know the old story.

Rick Mills said...

Just finished this one. I think your note of "once I gave myself up to Green's style" fits perfectly. It is wordy and flowery, but once into the style it is fascinating. I did get a chuckle out of the behind-the-scenes detective being named "Q" - perhaps this is where Ian Fleming got the idea!