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.
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.
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.
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.