Friday, September 10, 2010

Just who was Anna Katherine Green?

By Leslie Shortlidge

Pennsylvania politics took a back seat to mystery one day in 1878.  Who, asked the state’s legislators, was the real author of the taut, gritty mystery novel The Leavenworth Case? Surely “Anna Katharine Green” was a pen name for someone of the male persuasion. since the story of murder and subsequent detection was considered “manifestly beyond a woman’s powers.”*

The elected officials of PA were wrong. Anna Katharine Green was indeed Anna Katharine Green. Born in Brooklyn in 1846, her father, first reader, and first editor, James Wilson Green, was a lawyer. One has to assume that young Anna was paying quite a bit of attention to the stories her father brought home from work, or been sufficiently interested in criminal law to conduct her own investigation into police procedure and criminal trials. The Leavenworth Case, which was a huge success, immediately assumes a form that 21st century readers know and love: a body, a post-mortem, a locked room, a potential murder weapon, the testimony of witnesses, family secrets. Green puts all of these now-familiar tropes into play very quickly, commanding the reader’s attention and exciting curiosity.

She also introduces the reader to perhaps the most important trope, and that is the canny but eccentric sleuth in the personage of Mr. Gryce, who confounds our expectations from the get-go, as the novel’s narrator explains: 

“And here let me say that Mr. Gryce, the detective, was not the thin, wiry individual with the piercing eye you are doubtless expecting to see. On the contrary, Mr. Gryce was a portly, comfortable personage with an eye that never pierced, that did not even rest on you. If it rested anywhere, it was always on some insignificant object in the vicinity, some vase, inkstand, book, or button.”

The dialogue is sharp – no excessive tag lines clutter up the rapid back-and-forth of these post-bellum Brooklynites. Human nature is on display in the personages of the household staff and the jurors at the inquest. Love shows up right away, unbidden and unhelpful. Secrets are choked back by those unwilling to reveal them. Glances are exchanged.

Green wrote at least 40 other books, and also created detectives Violet Strange (isn’t that the best name ever?) and Amelia Butterworth, characters who perhaps influenced Nancy Drew and Miss Marple.

Judge for yourself the importance of Green’s work:  The first ten people to comment on this blog will be entered to win the just-issued Penguin edition of The Leavenworth Case.
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Leslie Shortlidge is a Guppie and lives in Columbus, Ohio. You can follow her on Twitter, where her handle is Bookorama. Most of her posts are exciting updates on her word count, using the #amwriting hash tag.

19 comments:

Gwen Mayo said...

Green's work deserved the attention it got in her lifetime. The prose is a bit dated by modern standards, but it is well worth revisiting.

Wendy Lyn Watson said...

Why have I never heard of this woman? Thank you for introducing me to her and her work ... I'm eager to track down a few of the books.

Patricia Winton said...

I've never heard of Anna Katherine Green, but I'm going to look for her books. I've been reading my way through the books P.D. James mentions in "Talking about Detective Fiction," but I think she missed Green

evleroux said...

I've never heard of this author, but she is one I must read. I think, no I know I will do some sleuthing and get one of her books to begin with.

Beth Kanell said...

I will definitely add this author to my shelves -- the shift to women who CAN and who DO beyond the house and family is such an important part of our image within American society.

Pryce M. Jones said...

Thanks for bringing Anna Katherine Green's work to my attention. I've never heard of her either but your blog has inspired me to learn more about her.

peggy THOMPSON said...

1878. Not surprised no one hears of her. It seems if the book was published last year it's too old to be featured on book sellers pages. This sounds very interesting

vp chandler said...

Thank you for this post. It is always inspiring to read about women writers, especially from this era. I will be looking for her works.

Julie Godfrey Miller said...

I, too, had never heard of her until recently. I wonder why? I'm going to look for her books.

Polly said...

Who said a woman couldn't write grisly? Ask Karin Slaughter or Patricia Cornwell or Mo Hayder.

Diane said...

This is great! I was aware of Anna Green but didn't truly appreciate her contribution to the mystery novel. I now want to read 'The Leavenworth Case." Thanks for bringing her back to my attention.
Diane Finney

Patg said...

I love hearing things like this. I too, have never heard of her. She certainly deserves attention as a founding mother of the great genre: Mystery!
Patg

Jess said...

Very cool. I've never heard of her, but will add her to my list of writers I want to read.

Cindy Kerschner said...

I have heard of her but didn't know her backstory. Now I want to read something in the Violet Strange series.

Leslie said...

My dear comment-makers, thanks so much for reading this blog post. As promised, one of the first six has been chosen as the winner of a copy of The Leavenworth Case . . .

Drum roll please . . .

It is EVLEROUX!!!

Dear evleroux -- please send your mailing address to:

lpbirdwell@gmail.com

I will forward your info to SinC's own Sandra Parshall, who is the source for this wonderful gift.

Leslie said...

Ack! I said six! I meant 10! My eyes are tired -- just finished reading VANISHING ACT by Thomas Perry. It was danged good.

Hannah Dennison said...

This is a terrific post, Lorraine. Thank you for introducing me to someone new and so inspiring!

Leslie said...

Going once, going twice --- Evleroux, please let me know if you are interested in receiving a copy of The Leavnworth Case.

Leslie said...

There's still a copy of The Leavenworth Case to give away, and since I didn't hear from our first winner, I hereby move on to the second:

Beth Kannell, COME ON DOWN! Please feel free to get in touch and we'll get your book right out to you!