Anna Katharine Green Critical Essays


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Most considerations of Anna Katharine Green’s literary achievements begin with an exposition of the salient and noteworthy features of The Leavenworth Case; indeed, this work has much in common with Green’s later efforts, though she manifested rather more versatility and ingenuity elsewhere than some commentators have allowed. In any event, her most famous novel has generally been accorded special attention for its innovative qualities. For that matter, certain devices and techniques, when they were adopted by later writers, eventually became hackneyed, whereas at the outset of her career Green’s approach to crime fiction was praised by many for its freshness and originality.

The Leavenworth Case

The opening chapters pose the problem in its most direct yet enigmatic form. When Horatio Leavenworth, a wealthy retired merchant, is found shot to death in his mansion in New York, and the fatal bullet is traced to the dead man’s pistol (which was left cleaned and reloaded at its usual place in an adjoining bedroom), certain individuals readily come under suspicion. Diagrams (which the author often supplied in her novels) suggest the path that the murderer may have taken; as no signs of surprise or struggle could be inferred from the victim’s posture, it is presumed throughout that the guilty party was well known to him. The work is narrated by Everett Raymond, a junior partner in a law firm. Almost from the beginning Raymond consults with Ebenezer Gryce, who has been recommended for his ability to assess the relative importance of facts and statements.

Speculation mounts about the dead man’s nieces. One of them, Mary Leavenworth, refuses to answer questions about a document that had been within her reach—and then privately admits that it exists no longer. The other, Eleanore, seems implicated by the discovery of a monogrammed handkerchief with gun soot on it, and a broken key to the library also is found in her possession. The contrast between the two leading female suspects, one blonde and one dark, is developed with a certain dramatic flair as it emerges that each of them is less than forthcoming on crucial points. In keeping with the emphasis on empirical methods, new problems of proof arise at each turn of the plot. On the other hand, the narrator’s subjective beliefs that character and bearing should mitigate the harsher suppositions circumstantial evidence has raised against the leading women add a further element of personal concern that seems justified by the outcome.

While the disappearance of Hannah Chester, a servant who may know more than the others about the fateful night, has some ominous overtones, other problems of motivation are considered when it becomes known that the final will of the deceased man did not favor one niece over the other so much as had been thought. The narrator is presented with evidence that Mary has been secretly married, to one Henry Clavering; fragments of an important letter, with bloodstains on them, and an inscription readily traced to her seem to cast further doubts on Mary’s intentions. Trueman Harwell, an assistant the dead man had originally employed to prepare one of his books for publication, seems persuaded that Clavering was the guilty one. Careful research and a fair amount of footwork are required to trace the movements of leading characters; these are set down in a chronological table, and at intervals there are enumerated lists of major facts and questions outstanding.

Mr. Q, who is adept at disguises and can follow instructions from memory, scurries about to observe more closely the comings and goings at the Leavenworth mansion. When Hannah Chester is found dead with a packet of poison nearby and when a note ostensibly written by her is discovered, the mystery is thrown open once more. Yet it is resolved finally through the brooding intelligence of Mr. Gryce, who openly accuses Mary only as a stratagem to compel the original murderer to confess. Critics have objected that on one point the final reasoning seems awry. Gryce contends somewhat arbitrarily that it would be impossible for a woman to clean a pistol: Thus, from the very outset he had considered other possibilities.

Other Gryce Cases

In his next case, A Strange Disappearance (1880), Gryce takes up the clues leading to a missing woman from a wealthy household of New York who has been abducted by bandits. Q, who narrates this work, at one point poses as a seedy French artist (he also climbs a tree to enter a house). The Sword of Damocles: A Story of New York Life (1881), one of the author’s lengthier works, has Gryce brought in toward the end after securities have been taken from a bank vault.

Hand and Ring

The author regarded Hand and Ring (1883), one of the more popular of her early works, as her personal favorite among her novels. In that novel, Green introduced Caleb Sweetwater and Horace Byrd as two of Gryce’s more prominent subordinates. The murder of a seemingly inoffensive woman in her own house and the discovery of a diamond ring that was detached from her finger lead to some odd and chilling scenes. One suspect, in despair, attempts to cut his own throat, while the initial conundrum cannot be resolved in the courtroom. It comes to light that Gryce, disguised as a humpbacked man, has gathered further evidence; eventually a secret marriage, involving one of the least likely characters, is disclosed as the basis for the crime.

Byrd makes another appearance in Seven to Twelve (1887); he and Gryce work together in A Matter of Millions (1890), while Q is called back to aid his superior in Behind Closed Doors (1888). The limitations under which Gryce had to operate seemed to call for more active and astute participation by other detectives who were brought in to assist him. Although by the standards of his time Gryce is well versed in problems of scientific evidence—he can distinguish among grades of writing paper and the types of ash they produce when burned, and he is knowledgeable about ballistics and toxicology—he is far from all-knowing, and rarely are his cases closed without the...

(The entire section is 2541 words.)