Wednesday, March 28, 2018

The Leavenworth Case by Anna Katherine Green

Legal procedural with Victorian histrionics
I had previously read a short story by mystery writer Anna Katherine Green entitled “A Memorable Night” which I enjoyed very much. Intrigued enough to want to read more of her work, I figured I would start with The Leavenworth Case, which, published in 1878, was her first novel and is probably still her best known work. Green has been hailed as the “mother of detective fiction” and can be viewed as the closest American equivalent to Britain’s Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The Leavenworth Case does not live up to such praise, however, and proved a disappointing mystery novel and a tiresome read.

The narrator, Mr. Raymond, is the junior partner of a New York law firm. When one of the firm’s wealthy clients, Horatio Leavenworth, is found shot to death in his library, Raymond is called to the crime scene to lend whatever assistance he can. There he encounters police detective Ebenezer Gryce, the chief investigator on the case. Green would go on to write a series of novels starring Gryce, but here he is a supporting character, working on the periphery of the story while the narrative follows Raymond’s own investigation. Very early in the book it is established that three young women are the primary suspects in the case. Since the servant girl’s whereabouts are unknown, that leaves Mr. Leavenworth’s nieces, Mary and Eleonore, as the main targets of the investigation.

The fact that the suspects are female presents a frustrating problem for the reader. According to Victorian conventions, it would be ungentlemanly to accuse a woman of a crime and unchivalrous to cause her delicate sensibilities any distress by questioning her. A woman, the embodiment of all that is good and pure in the universe, could not possibly commit a crime (unless, of course, she’s of the servant class), and the more beautiful she is the more certain her innocence. This leads to much hemming and hawing in the investigation, as the ladies continually burst into tears, causing Raymond much personal
discomfiture. The more Green beats this dead horse the more it becomes apparent that she actually believes the myth of the guiltless female, which makes it clear that the book’s ending will reflect such beliefs, thus drastically reducing the pool of viable suspects. Also bothersome is the fact that there is a man who was present at the Leavenworth house on the night of the murder, but it takes forever before anyone bothers to track him down and question him. Why? Because he’s a “gentleman”!

The first half of the book is excruciatingly slow, as Raymond spends more time apologizing to the Misses Leavenworth and fretting over their feelings than he does actually questioning them. An entire chapter is devoted to one character’s dream sequence, which is presented and considered as if it were actual evidence. Later in the book, a few characters relate extensive back stories which unfortunately do not reveal anything to the reader that wasn’t already stated earlier in the book. Green telegraphs her plot developments so far in advance I was always three chapters ahead of Raymond in solving the case. Adding insult to ennui, Green spends a great deal of time leading you down one path only to predictably swerve the story into an ending that feels more like a cheat than a surprise.

Given her reputation, I still hold out some faith in Green’s talents as a mystery writer, but I did not like this book. The character of Gryce shows promise, and he may have a good case somewhere in Green’s body of work, but I’m not sure I want to hunt for it.
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