Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Leavenworth Case - Anna Katharine Green

Anna Katharine Green was one of the first women to write detective stories & this book with a series detective was published nearly ten years before Sir Arthur Conan Doyle began publishing his Sherlock Holmes stories. Set in New York, The Leavenworth Case is the story of the murder of wealthy Horatio Leavenworth. He's found shot in the head one morning in the library of his mansion on Fifth Avenue. The room was locked & the key is missing but the weapon seems to have been his own pistol, found back in its usual place in his room. The house also seems secure so the obvious inference is that one of the family or servants is responsible.

Leavenworth was unmarried but he lived with two nieces, Mary & Eleonore (they're cousins, not sisters) & it soon becomes obvious that one if not both of them had a motive to kill him. Horatio was a peculiar man. Incredibly wealthy, he had given a home to his nieces after they were orphaned. He seemed to love them both yet, on the grounds that one of the was more attractive than the other, he left all his money to Mary & Eleonore could expect very little. The girls seem to be on friendly yet not intimate terms. Brought up as sisters yet not treated equally.  Leavenworth also had an unreasonable prejudice against Englishmen which will be an important clue to the actions of Mary & Eleonore in the months before their uncle’s death.

At the inquest (held, as was customary at the time, at the scene of the crime), damning circumstantial evidence seems to point to Eleonore’s guilt. Her handkerchief is found stained with the grease where someone had cleaned the murder weapon. Eleonore was seen to take a piece of paper from the desk where her uncle lay dead & she admits to having handled the pistol on the day of the murder. One of the maidservants, Hannah Chester, disappears on the night of the murder & then there’s the mysterious stranger who was admitted to the house to see Eleonore on the night of the murder.  Who was he & why did he visit the house twice, giving a different name on each occasion? There are red herrings, clues aplenty & another murder before this case is solved.

The Leavenworth Case is narrated by a young lawyer, Mr Everett Raymond, who is an assistant to the Leavenworth family's lawyer (conveniently out of town). He is summoned to the house by Mr Leavenworth’s secretary, Trueman Harwell, on the morning the body is discovered to give some support & legal advice to the young ladies. He becomes involved in the investigation along with Ebenezer Gryce, the police detective in charge of the case. Raymond soon has another motive in discovering the identity of the murderer as he falls in love with Eleonore & is desperate to clear her from suspicion.  

The Leavenworth Case was a trailblazer in detective fiction. Ebenezer Gryce is a detective in the tradition of Inspector Bucket in Bleak House or Sergeant Cuff in The Moonstone. His appearance & eccentric behaviour are a step towards the characterization of the Golden Age detectives like Hercule Poirot & Gideon Fell. Some of his sayings are reminiscent of Holmes or they would be if they hadn’t been written nearly ten years before Holmes appeared,

Now it is a principle which every detective recognizes the truth of, that if of a hundred leading circumstances connected with a crime, ninety-nine of these are acts pointing to the suspected party with unerring certainty but the hundredth equally important act one which that person could not have performed, the whole fabric of suspicion is destroyed.

Green’s writing is very melodramatic. Her language & dialogue is heightened, almost in the manner of the great sensation novelists of the period. This is Eleonore protesting her innocence to Everett Raymond,

“You have said that if I declared my innocence you would believe me,” exclaimed she, lifting her head as I entered. “See here,” and laying her cheek against the pallid brow of her dead benefactor, she kissed the clay-cold lips softly, wildly, agonizedly, then leaping to her feet, cried in a subdued but thrilling tone:”Could I do that if I were guilty? Would not the breath freeze on my lips, the blood congeal in my veins, the life feint away at my heart? Son of a father loved and reverenced, can you believe me to be a woman stained with crime when I can do this?” And kneeling again she cast her arms over and about that inanimate form, looking in my face at the same time with an expression no mortal touch could paint, not tongue describe.

Anna Katharine Green was a pioneer of detective fiction. This was her first novel & she went on to write more books featuring Ebenezer Gryce, as well as other series with her spinster detective Amelia Butterworth & Violet Strange. I’m looking forward to reading more of her work.


  1. I'd like to read this book - specially written in that period - it must be different and interesting as well.

  2. I'm just in the middle (or rather, quite near the end) of reading this book! and I'm enjoying it very much. Glad you liked it too. Thanks for the review.

  3. Lyn, I hadn't even heard of this author (hanging my head in shame here!) and I'm off to look for a copy right now. However much I try to pretend I'm an up-market reader, I love a good detective and some of these early ones are superb period pieces. Thank you.

  4. Hi, came to this blog from Martin's. It was interesting to see you posting about Anna Katherine Green at the same time I had mentioned her in the comments on Martin's post on Winifred Peck's The Warrielaw Jewel.

    As someone who has read and enjoyed other Peck and who enjoys Green, you should like The Warrielaw Jewel. I wish someone like Persephone would reprint it.

  5. Hi Lyn. Thanks for the great review. The title of this book rings a bell and it is fascinating to see how perhaps Doyle et al may have borrowed from this author. Sadly, I don't think she is very well known today? I shall try to pick up a copy :-)
    As an aside: just to let you know that the link to my blog in your blogroll is to a defunct Wordpress entry (I was experimenting!). Sorry to trouble you but the active address is

  6. Mystica, I hope you can get hold of a copy. If you have an e-reader, you can download it for free from Girlebooks. Harriet, I'm glad you're enjoying it. I was amazed at how many of the conventions of the detective novel seem to have appeared in this novel first. Annie, I'd heard of AKG but, apart from some short stories I think I read years ago, I hadn't read any of her books. Vegetableduck, I'd love to read more of Winifred Peck's novels. It's always good to find another detective writer. Rochester Reader, thanks for the link, I've updated the blogroll. I'll have to go back through your archive now, I've probably missed quite a lot!

  7. Lyn, Lady Peck wrote a supernatural novel as well, called Unseen Array, that looks quite good. I think The Warrielaw Jewel actually was her first novel.

    You have an interesting and attractive blog site, by the way; I will enjoy visiting it!

  8. Winifred Peck wrote mysteries? I only know her from the one book Persephone Books published--that I started reading but I lost the thread on so set it aside. How interesting! I have this AKG book and an very much looking forward to reading it!

  9. Thank you Vegetableduck! I read quite a lot of mysteries so I hope you enjoy visiting the blog. I'd be interested in anything else by Peck so I hope someone reprints more of her books one day. Dani, I loved House Bound, I hope you pick up the thread again one day. I'll be interested to see what you think of Leavenworth.

  10. I'm glad that Penguin has reprinted this one. Let's hope more crime classics follow!