Anna Katharine Green Green, Anna Katharine - Essay


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Anna Katharine Green 1846-1935

American novelist, short story writer, poet, and dramatist.

One of the first American women to write mystery and detective fiction, Green is today remembered for her important contributions to the development of this literary genre. Her reputation as the "mother" or "godmother" of the detective story rests on her unprecedented popularity with readers, which helped bring "respectability" to the detective genre, as well as on her many narrative innovations. Green introduced several devices that later became standard in detective fiction, such as the coroner's inquest, expert testimony, and detailed maps or house plans that illustrate the scene of the crime; she firmly established the convention of the recurring detective and the technique of pairing a professional detective with an amateur; and she created two detective prototypes, the elderly spinster sleuth and the young female investigator. Green's best-known detective, however, is the fatherly, endearingly eccentric Inspector Ebenezer Gryce, who is featured in over a dozen of Green's stories. Gryce made his debut in Green's first work, The Leavenworth Case (1878). One of the earliest best-selling detective novels, The Leavenworth Case preceded the appearance of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes by almost a decade.

Biographical Information

Green was born in Brooklyn, New York, the youngest daughter of James Wilson Green, a prominent defense lawyer, and Katharine Ann Whitney Green, who died when Green was just three years old. Green attended public schools, first in New York City and then in Buffalo, where the family moved after her father's remarriage. As a young girl, Green aspired to be a poet. She was composing verses by the age of eleven, and while she was a student at Ripley Female College in Poultney, Vermont, she sent samples of her work to Ralph Waldo Emerson. In the mid-1860s, after receiving her B.A., Green returned home to pursue her interest in writing poetry. She also worked on a mystery novel inspired by the detective stories of Edgar Allan Poe and Émile Gaboriau as well as by her father's accounts of his criminal cases. Entitled The Leavenworth Case, the novel follows the criminal investigation into the shooting death of a wealthy New York philanthropist. The Leavenworth Case enjoyed tremendous popularity upon its publication and for many years afterward. Not only was it reprinted several times, it was also adapted for the stage and filmed in both silent and sound versions. In addition, it was used in a course at Yale University to demonstrate the fallacy of relying on circumstantial evidence. The overnight success of The Leavenworth Case made Green's name a household word, and she went on to write over thirty more novels and several collections of short stories in a career that spanned forty-five years. Ironically, while Green's acclaim as a novelist caused her to abandon her dream of becoming a well-known poet, it did bring some attention to her poetic works, the collection The Defense of the Bride, and Other Poems (1882) and the verse drama Risifi's Daughter (1887). In 1884 Green married Charles Rohlfs, an actor—he played the lead role in the stage version of The Leavenworth Case—who later became a famous furniture designer. The couple settled in Buffalo, where they raised three children, only one of whom was alive at the time of Green's death in 1935.

Major Works

The Leavenworth Case provided a model for most of Green's subsequent works. The basic ingredients of her stories and her methods changed little over the course of her career. Typically, the crime involved is a murder that takes place amid polite New York society, love entanglements provide clues to solving the mystery, and there is a surprise plot twist. Green frequently framed her stories around courtroom scenes or a coroner's inquest to reveal the facts of the case, and she often provided lists of deductions and possibilities as she sketched potential suspects and their motives. Each novel carefully follows the reasoning of the chief detective on the case, who is aided by an eager associate. Green's best-known detective, Inspector Ebenezer Gryce, the hero of The Leavenworth Case and such other popular novels as A Strange Disappearance (1880), Hand and Ring (1884), A Matter of Millions (1890), and The Doctor, His Wife, and the Clock (1895), has several different assistants, including Horace Byrd, Amelia Butterworth, and his principal protégé, Caleb Sweetwater, who also appears in some of Green's novels as the chief investigator. Gryce collaborates with Butterworth, a nosy but astute spinster from an old New York family, in the novels That Affair Next Door (1897), Lost Man's Lane (1898), and The Circular Study (1900). The feisty and shrewd Butterworth is considered the precursor to Agatha Christie's famous unmarried woman detective, Miss Jane Marple. Green created another important female detective for the short story collection The Golden Slipper and Other Problems for Violet Strange (1915). Strange, a young woman who leads a double life as a socialite and an agent for a professional detective agency, is frequently described as an early version of Nancy Drew.

Critical Reception

Contemporary readers and critics marveled at the ingeniousness of Green's plots, remarking that she never told the same story twice. Her appeal derived in large part from the realism of her stories. Unlike much of the detective fiction being written at the time, Green's narratives never exceeded the bounds of probability or relied on fantastic coincidences. Instead, Green constructed plots that usually turned on a piece of medical or scientific evidence, and many of the now-familiar devices she introduced involve legal and police procedures. Green herself commented on her realistic approach in an essay on crime and detective fiction she wrote toward the end of her career: "In writing detective stories, the less one resorts to arbitrary helps in the mystery, the better. I mean that people are not interested in a crime that depends on some imaginary mechanical device, some unknown poison, or some legendary animal. To resort to such expedients for your mystery is a weakness. To employ imagination in making use of natural laws, however, is another matter." In her own day, Green was ranked with Poe, Gaboriau, and Doyle among the best writers of detective fiction, and her huge following of devotees included Wilkie Collins and Woodrow Wilson. By the middle of this century, however, Green's name had fallen into obscurity, principally because her strict adherence to Victorian codes of behavior made her books appear dated. Recent critics note that her stories are overly melodramatic and sentimental, her characters forced and unnatural. Yet she is remembered as the first American woman to write a best-selling detective novel and for bringing wider readership to the genre. She is also recognized for her originality. Critics praise her stories as models of plot construction and consistently remark that she anticipated many of the characteristics of modern detective stories, not only with the new devices she introduced but also with old ones she reworked, such as her broadening of the role of the amateur detective to include women.

Principal Works

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

The Leavenworth Case: A Lawyer's Story (novel) 1878

A Strange Disappearance (novel) 1880

The Defense of the Bride, and Other Poems (poetry) 1882

Hand and Ring (novel) 1884

Risifi's Daughter: A Drama (drama) 1887

Behind Closed Doors (novel) 1888

A Matter of Millions (novel) 1890

The Doctor, His Wife, and the Clock (novel) 1895

That Affair Next Door (novel) 1897

Lost Man's Lane: A Second Episode in the Life of Amelia Butterworth (novel) 1898

Agatha Webb (novel) 1899

The Circular Study (novel) 1900

One of My Sons (novel) 1901

The Filigree Ball (novel) 1903

The Amethyst Box (novel) 1905

The Chief Legatee (novel) 1906; also published as A Woman of Mystery, 1909

The Woman in the Alcove (novel) 1906

The House of the Whispering Pines (novel) 1910

Initials Only (novel) 1911

Masterpieces of Mystery (short stories) 1913; also published as Room Number 3, and Other Stories, 1919

Dark Hollow (novel) 1914

The Golden Slipper and Other Problems for Violet Strange (short stories) 1915

The Mystery of the Hasty Arrow (novel) 1917

The Step on the Stair; or, You Are the Man (novel) 1923

E. F. Harkins and C. H. L. Johnston (essay date 1902)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Anna Katharine Green (Mrs. Rohlfs)," in Little Pilgrimages among the Women Who Have Written Famous Books, L. C. Page & Co., 1902, pp. 91-106.

[In the following essay, Harkins and Johnston focus on Green's literary beginnings, her role as a trailblazer in the genre of detective fiction, and her strengths as a writer.]

It is related that when The Leavenworth Case was published in 1878, the Pennsylvania Legislature turned from politics to discuss the identity of its author. There was the name on the title-page—Anna Katharine Green—as distinct as the city of Harrisburgh itself. But it must be a nom de plume, some protested. A man wrote the...

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Grant Overton (essay date 1928)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Anna Katharine Green," in The Women Who Make Our Novels, revised edition, Dodd, Mead & Company, 1928, pp. 167-73.

[In the following essay, Overton examines Dark Hollow in order to illustrate Green's method of writing detective stories.]

Anna Katharine Green is a remarkable figure among American authors. With almost no literary gift except a power of dramatic emphasis, she possessed an extraordinary skill in the construction of the detective story. At least one of her books, The Leavenworth Case, which must have been first published nearly forty years ago, is recalled by everybody familiar with mystery fiction. Others of her books have been...

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Kathleen Woodward (essay date 1929)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Anna Katharine Green," in The Bookman, New York, Vol. LXX, No. 2, October, 1929, pp. 168-70.

[In the following essay, Woodward recalls her visit with Green in Buffalo, New York, during which the eighty-three-year-old author reflected on the differences between contemporary mystery stories and those written around the time The Leavenworth Case was first published.]

I had not thought to meet a frail and diffident lady, who for the most part would talk to me about the felicities of her home, her husband and her children, when in the city of Buffalo I sought out the author who had given to President Wilson what he called his "most authentic thrills", and...

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Howard Haycraft (essay date 1941)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "America: 1890-1914 (The Romantic Age)," in Murder for Pleasure: The Life and Times of the Detective Story, D. Appleton-Century Company, Incorporated, 1941, pp. 83-102.

[In the following excerpt, Haycraft underscores the historical importance of Green's mysteries, particularly The Leavenworth Case, to the detective genre in America.]

Unless the reader is prepared to admit Nick Carter and his confreres and the semi-fictional Pinkerton reminiscences and their ilk to the dignity of detective novels, it must be said that the American field lay fallow from Poe's "Purloined Letter" (1844) to Anna Katharine Green's The Leavenworth Case (1878). Any number...

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John Cornillon (essay date 1973)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Case for Violet Strange," in Images of Women in Fiction: Feminist Perspectives, edited by Susan Koppelman Cornillon, revised edition, Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1973, pp. 206-15.

[In the following excerpt, Cornillon views The Golden Slipper and Other Problems for Violet Strange from a feminist perspective, showing how the collection exposes female oppression and emphasizes sisterhood.]

As fans of Anna Katherine Green's mysteries picked up her latest book in 1915, The Golden Slipper and Other Problems for Violet Strange, they may have asked themselves as you are asking, "Who is Violet Strange?"

They were...

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Barrie Hayne (essay date 1981)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Anna Katharine Green," in 10 Women of Mystery, edited by Earl F. Bargainnier, Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1981, pp. 152-78.

[In the following excerpt, Hayne discusses the historical importance of Green's works in terms of her consolidation of the detective novel and the sensational novel and her contribution to the literary convention of the professional and amateur detective working together to solve a crime.]

"It is admirable," said Poirot. "One savours its period atmosphere, its studied and deliberate melodrama. Those rich and lavish descriptions of the golden beauty of Eleanor, the moonlight beauty of Mary!"


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Audrey Peterson (essay date 1984)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Some Minor Voices," in Victorian Masters of Mystery: From Wilkie Collins to Conan Doyle, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1984, pp. 155-96.

[In the following excerpt, Peterson emphasizes Green's influence on later detective writers, and describes three of Green's principal detectives: Ebenezer Gryce, Amelia Butterworth, and Violet Strange.]

The first thing that strikes the reader of Anna Katharine Green's novels is that they sound like modem mystery stories. Their central purpose is to use a crime as a direct puzzle for the reader to solve and they waste no time in getting on with the plot. Wilkie Collins … developed the mystery formula almost by accident,...

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Cheri L. Ross (essay date 1991)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The First Feminist Detective: Anna Katharine Green's Amelia Butterworth," in Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 25, No. 2, Fall, 1991, pp. 77-86.

[In the following excerpt, Ross calls That Affair Next Door a feminist work, arguing that Green challenges conventional notions of female behavior through her portrayal of Amelia Butterworth.]

Born in Brooklyn in 1846, educated at the Ripley Female Academy in Vermont, and resident of Buffalo, New York, all her adult life, Anna Katharine Green was one of the first American women to write detective fiction. She wrote thirty-five detective novels and four collections of short stories during a career that spanned...

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Further Reading

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


Green, Anna Katharine. "Why Human Beings Are Interested in Crime." The American Magazine LXXXVII, No. 2 (February 1919): 39, 82, 84, 86.

Essay in which Green discusses why people are interested in crime, what types of crimes and what aspects of crime are found most fascinating, and what motivates criminal behavior.

Maida, Patricia D. Mother of Detective Fiction: The Life and Works of Anna Katharine Green. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1989, 120 p.

Scholarly examination of Green's life and writings.

Additional coverage of Green's life and career is contained in the...

(The entire section is 97 words.)