“Move over, Miss Marple! The original spinster sleuth is back, confronting ghostly coaches, nosing into family skullduggery, and tripping over occasional corpses. Three cheers for Amelia Butterworth and her creator Anna Katharine Green.”—Elizabeth Foxwell, mystery writer and contributing editor, Mystery Scene magazine
That Affair Next Door and Lost Man's Laneby Anna Katharine Green
Anna Katharine Green was the most famous and prolific writer of detective fiction in the United States prior to Dashiell Hammett. Her first novel, The Leavenworth Case, was the bestseller of 1878. Green is credited with a number of “firsts” within the mystery genre, including the gentleman murdered as he makes out his will and the icicle as murder weapon. She created the first female detectives in American fiction. Her amateur spinster sleuth, Amelia Butterworth, became the prototype for numerous women detectives to follow, including Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple. Nosy, opinionated, and tenacious, Amelia Butterworth engages in a sustained rivalry with Ebenezer Gryce, a police detective. In the interaction between these characters, Green developed two more conventions adopted by future generations of mystery writers: the investigation as battle between the sexes and between the professional and the unexpectedly sharp, observant amateur. This volume presents two of Green’s Amelia Butterworth tales: That Affair Next Door (1897) and Lost Man’s Lane (1898).
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That affair next doorAnd, lost man's lane
By Anna Katharine Green
Duke University PressISBN: 0-8223-3190-X
IntroductionCatherine Ross Nickerson
These two detective novels by Anna Katherine Green represent significant developments in the history of women's popular writing, making clear a fact that has become somewhat obscure to us in the present moment: women were central to the history of popular literature and to the development of mass culture at the beginning of the twentieth century. Readers who believe that the American detective novel originated with the hard-boiled school of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler will be surprised to learn that American women in the 1860s took the detective story apparatus famously introduced by Edgar Allan Poe and developed it into a full-blown novelistic form. This female tradition of detective fiction was highly popular in its own day and enjoyed a devoted readership of men and women from the middle and upper classes. It is quite different from either of the styles well known to readers of detective fiction today, the American hard-boiled style and its several offshoots or the British golden-age style and its current variations. Green's novels are a hybrid of the detective story and the domestic novel, an earlier popular genre of women's writing in which both the narrative emphasis and the kinds of crimes that occur are centered around questions of home, family, and women's experience. Soclose is the connection between these two narrative forms that we can call the tradition domestic detective fiction.
Anna Katharine Green was one of the most successful and acclaimed of these early writers of detective fiction, producing thirty-four novels and four collections of short stories. She was the daughter of a New York City criminal attorney, and it is entirely plausible to speculate that she absorbed some of her knowledge about both crime and the law from living in such a household. Green was educated at a female seminary in Vermont, as befit a daughter of the professional class, and she began to write fiction and poetry in her teenage years. She was thirty-two years old when she published her first novel, The Leavenworth Case in 1878, which became the best-selling novel of that year. It is sometimes named as the first detective novel written by a woman, but that honor actually belongs to Metta Fuller Victor's The Dead Letter of 1867 (reprinted in a companion volume). Green most likely read Victor's fiction before writing her own, because several plot details in The Leavenworth Case seem to have been inspired by Victor's The Dead Letter and The Figure Eight (for example, a patriarch shot while writing his will, a neophyte lawyer as amateur detective, an Irish seamstress who knows too much, and heroines with the same name). Green often cited Emile Gaboriau, Poe, and Wilkie Collins as major influences on her writing. She was a highly productive, well-reviewed, and commercially successful author of detective novels, publishing into the 1920s.
Critics and journalists who met and interviewed Green often commented on the paradox of the demure author and her violent subject matter. They also sounded a note of surprise that a woman could craft the technically demanding, intersecting plots of a detective novel, logic and reason being, according to the common sense of the time, the strength of men's minds, not women's. She married unusually late for a woman of her era, at the age of thirty-eight, well after she had established her career. Her husband, Charles Rohlfs, was an actor and a designer of fine furniture, and they raised three children together, eventually moving from Brooklyn to Buffalo. But while Green flouted certain expectations of her Victorian times, she was politically conservative, writing editorials against suffrage for women on the eve of World War I. She thus positioned herself with the "antis," women (generally older women of the moneyed classes) who refused to believe that extending the vote to women was necessary or desirable. Green wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Times scolding the young women picketing the White House at a time of national emergency: "A true woman waives her rights in times of stress, whether that stress be domestic or public. If there is one virtue hitherto considered as characteristic of the sex it is that of self-forgetfulness." Green was by no means an extremist, however; she apparently belonged to that strain of conservatism that remained critical of the social and legal inequality of women but unenthusiastic about universal suffrage as a political goal. Many of Green's novels highlight the limited choices offered to women, even women of privilege; one of her favorite types of villain is the man in a position of power over women (wives, daughters, sisters, wards, servants) who abuses that power.
Both That Affair Next Door (1897) and Lost Man's Lane (1898) are narrated by an amateur detective named Amelia Butterworth. Green is known among connoisseurs of detective fiction as an innovator, apparently the first to use the icicle as a murder weapon that later melts away and a mechanical device that kills from a distance. However, her most significant and influential contribution to the genre is the creation, in Amelia Butterworth, of the spinster detective. Women writers from Agatha Christie and Mary Roberts Rinehart down to present-day authors like Sara Paretsky, Sue Grafton, and Julie Smith (among dozens of others) have been fascinated by the possibilities of the unmarried woman as crime investigator. The resolutely single woman has appeared as a detective across the whole gamut of murder-mystery styles, from police procedural to feminist hard-boiled, from lesbian private eye to country house and academic. At the time Green introduced Butterworth, the spinster was a highly significant figure in the cultural imagination. In the Victorian era, the old maid was a more or less pitiable character, having failed to marry and find her natural fulfillment in caring for a husband and children. In life and in literature, she was usually economically dependent on her parents and siblings, and her main social currency was her virginal rectitude. She was characterized by her embittered outlook and her nosiness about other people's business. Beginning in the 1920s, a second type of spinster emerged in reality and popular culture: the happily unmarried woman who earned her own salary and made her own choices. Although Amelia Butterworth belongs historically to the category of Victorian old maid, her personal wealth makes all the difference in her social position and worldview, so she thus forecasts the possibility of the happy spinster of the next generation.
Spinsters seem to work well as detectives for several reasons. They are freed from the many chores and responsibilities that would keep full-time wives and mothers busy indoors, so on a practical level they have the time to devote to detective work. Furthermore, while propriety dictated against women moving about in public unescorted by men, spinsters of Butterworth's age and social class had more leeway, since they did not have the reputation of a husband to consider and they were understood to be chaperones rather than those needing to be chaperoned. We see in Butterworth's repertoire of techniques a willingness to trade on the stereotype that makes her out to be foolish and inconsequential, thus allowing her to ease information from unsuspecting suspects. At a more symbolic level, we trust the spinster-detective to look below facades of gentility since she herself is something of an outsider and potential skeptic, especially about the institution of marriage that is such a vexed issue in early detective fiction by women (as see elaborated in That Affair Next Door).
Amelia Butterworth is a nosy, opinionated, self-satisfied, and very funny character. The humor she brings to these novels is of two types. One level of amusement is created by her sharp tongue and rather ferocious command of the English language, exemplified in comments such as "I realized it would never do for me to lose my wits in the presence of a man who had none too many of his own." At the same time, Green creates a narrator with such an inflated sense of her own significance that she can refer to one of her less composed moments as "un-Butterworthian," and we smile at the self-delusion and self-approbation throughout her narrative. Yet she is a character we warm to, partly because she does have moments of more humble self-consciousness and mostly because we admire her brains, her tenacity, and her genuine insight into human nature. While she takes quite conservative stances on issues of manners and society, she also voices a pointed critique of male presumptions that we tend to associate with a later period of feminism. From the beginning, it is clear that she is inspired to begin her investigative activities not simply for the noble reason she offers ("my sense of justice") but also because of a desire to prove that women can be detectives if they choose and a specific wish to cut the patronizing police detective, Ebenezer Gryce, down to size. The rivalry between the two detectives manifests itself in energetic verbal sparring, and those sometimes bruising exchanges create the clearest picture of Green's limited but heartfelt challenges to contemporary ideas of "woman's nature."
That Affair Next Door provides a prime example of Green's intricate and ingenious plots. Of course, all detective fiction is structurally complex, since, according to the narrative theorist Tzvetan Todorov, it involves two interlocking plots. One plot, which we follow from the beginning to the end, is the story of the investigation: how and where the body is found, what physical evidence crops up, how the detective questions witnesses and suspects, how accusations and confessions unfold, and what leads to the identification of the murderer. The other plot is the story of the murder (or murders): how it was committed, what motivated it, how the murderer attempted to hide the body, and what other evidence of the crime was left behind. The story of the murder is unknown at the beginning of the novel; it appears in fragmentary form until the detective begins realigning the pieces into a coherent narrative. Only when she or he has a full account of the story can the investigation come to a conclusion. Thus, the goal of one plot is the reconstruction of the other.
This doubled pattern is highly visible in That Affair Next Door. When the body of a young woman, her face crushed beyond recognition, is found in the empty mansion of a prominent New York merchant family, this discovery sets in motion a series of linked mistaken identities connected with the question of who killed her and the mystery of who she really was. There are several obstacles to the investigation, and thus the reconstruction of the truth, that involve questions of "women's place." First, the male chauvinism of the police detective, Ebenezer Gryce, infantilizes both Butterworth and a key witness. In recompense, both women withhold crucial information from him, which they eventually put together to solve the crime in concert. Second, various men tell lies to protect the honor of the women in their families (and by extension their own good reputations). Since being alone in a house with a man not related to her brings shame on a woman and her marriage, one husband refuses to identify the body of his wife lest she appear to have been having an affair when she was murdered, then later claims that he himself was at the scene. The third challenge to solving the problem of mistaken identity is the difficulty of reading fine differences between kinds of women, such as those between a lady's maid and a lady's companion and between an adventuress and a young woman eager to please her socially ambitious husband.
The story of the investigation is a story about the way that sexist social constructions obscure the truth and a story of female intelligence and experience triumphant. While at certain points some of the female characters come under suspicion, the story of the murder is at bottom about male treachery and hard-heartedness. Without spoiling too many of the satisfying plot twists of the novel, I can say that the novel sets up parallel cases where men get rid of wives who present social obstacles of one sort or another. In that way, it resembles Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy (1925), a better-remembered account of murder for social advancement that portrays the dark side of masculine dreams of upward mobility. Green offers a lively portrait of New York's neighborhoods as seen through upper-class eyes, with midnight trips to a Chinese laundry and visits to a middle-brow boarding house. But she locates violent crime in Gramercy Park, among the merchant class, and attributes it to male ruthlessness, and that location and attribution of villainy constitute the core of her social critique.
Social climbing, the source of so much trouble in this book, was a source of great anxiety in the decades bridging the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This anxiety was largely a response to an increasing heterogeneity in American society, especially in cities, that was the effect of several events and economic processes: the emancipation of enslaved African Americans; the successive waves of immigration from Europe and Asia that had begun in the 1840s; the internal migration from rural to urban areas as capitalism consolidated and matured after the Gilded Age; and the development of a professional elite that had to be qualified by education, not simply by birth. That Affair Next Door documents both the increasing ease with which people could acquire at least a facsimile of the markers of high social class and the growing danger that unscrupulous hoi polloi could exploit the generosity of the genteel. One important identity switch in the novel is facilitated by the availability of well-made but utterly generic clothing in new department stores like Altman's, and one woman's overweaning ambition is revealed by her extravagant hand-stitched undergarments. The novel also reflects the the confusion about the merits of social mobility or progress in the 1890s: on one side, we have an extremely unpleasant arriviste family in the Van Burnams and a psychopathological social climber in John Randolph. But at the end of the novel, Butterworth decides that the efforts of Olive Randolph (a former suspect) to increase her social status are quite noble; she brings Olive to live in her Gramercy Park mansion as something like an adopted daughter. An important part of Butterworth's role, then, is the performance of a kind of class hygiene; her investigation centers on questions of physical and social identity, and the book's resolution comes when everyone is installed in his or her correct place.
That Affair Next Door is narrated almost entirely in a realistic mode, with one notable exception-the moment when Olive Randolph takes a role from the gothic novel, the ghostly bride. Such gothic moments appear throughout Green's work and are signs of the link in her writing to the powerful female tradition in fiction and poetry. That connection-including coded letters, locked rooms, secret wills, trapdoors, graves in the basement, and muttering crones-may puzzle some readers, but it makes sense when we recall that the origins of all styles of detective fiction lie in the work of Edgar Allan Poe. The gothic, long assigned a second-tier status by literary critics and academics, was reclaimed as a significant tradition by the literary critics Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar in their 1979 landmark study The Madwoman in the Attic. Their argument that the Anglo-American gothic mode is an expression of two emotional states culturally forbidden to women, anger and desire, has inspired a great deal of feminist scholarship; the most recent and sophisticated examinations of this mode in American literature and culture have come from the historian Karen Halttunen and the literary critic Teresa Goddu, who argue that the gothic imaginary is woven tightly into the public and artistic discourses of the nineteenth century.
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Meet the Author
Anna Katharine Green (1846–1935) was a well-reviewed and commercially successful author of detective novels. She wrote thirty-four novels and four collections of stories.
Catherine Ross Nickerson is Associate Professor of English at Emory University. She is the author of The Web of Iniquity: Early Detective Fiction by American Women, also published by Duke University Press.
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