Reading: The Leavenworth Case

Reading: The Leavenworth Case

Although my presentation this month on Anna Katharine Green will be covering more than just her first book, The Leavenworth Case has enough to say about itself it could be an entire presentation unto itself. Instead, I’ll share some more about it here, as a taster for what’s to come in the presentation.

We open with “Mr. Leavenworth is dead. . . . murdered; shot through the head by some unknown person while sitting at his library table.” The story is told from the first-person point of view of a young lawyer, Everett Raymond, who had worked with Leavenworth, and is called to the house upon discovery of the body. There he meets the beautiful Eleanore Leavenworth, who he immediately falls in love with, only to learn that most if not all of the evidence seems to point directly to her as the murderer. Naturally, the book then follows his desire to exonerate her. At its heart, like most mysteries, it is a romance. In fact, Green called them “criminal romances” (as the first use of the genre term “detective fiction” wasn’t until 1900 in the wake of Sherlock Holmes’s popularity).

Although she wasn’t the first to write a mystery with a love story at its center, this, as well as many other devices she uses, make the book feel quite full of tropes. But you have to remind yourself: It’s a trope because others copied her, not vice versa. She was defining the ingredients of the detective mystery genre!

Things like: cliffhanger chapter endings, the locked room mystery, a plot carried forward mostly by dialogue rather than description, an inquest, the use of ballistics, the detailed surgeon’s report, a crime scene map, a secret marriage, a missing key, a vanished servant, a forged confession, ciphered messages, overheard arguments, a changed will, a second murder, and a memorable denouement. Detective Gryce even sets up a classic trap at the end into which the killer falls. And all of that just in her FIRST novel!

Which brings us to the introduction of Detective Ebenezer Gryce:

“Mr. Gryce smiled darkly at the door-knob. “It has a dreadful look!” I exclaimed. Mr. Gryce immediately frowned at the door-knob. And here let me say that Mr. Gryce, the detective, was not the thin, wiry individual with the piercing eye you are doubtless expecting to see. On the contrary, Mr. Gryce was a portly, comfortable personage with an eye that never pierced, that did not even rest on you. If it rested anywhere, it was always on some insignificant object in the vicinity, some vase, inkstand, book, or button. These things he would seem to take into his confidence, make the repositories of his conclusions; but as for you—you might as well be the steeple on Trinity Church, for all connection you ever appeared to have with him or his thoughts. At present, then, Mr. Gryce was, as I have already suggested, on intimate terms with the door-knob.”

In addition to his tendency to avoid eye contact, Detective Gryce suffers from rheumatism and gout, so when the lawyer next sees him after meeting him at the house of Mr. Leavenworth, he is lying on his couch with bandages around his hands and feet. Because of his health, he is often laid up, which forces him to ask the assistance of others, like the lawyer, to gather clues for him.

This also makes Gryce the first time we see the “armchair detective”—the detective who solves the mystery without collecting clues himself and only by using his extensive knowledge of human nature and his deductive powers. (His “little grey cells” as Poirot will say.)

He often says things that might call to mind other detectives who’ve followed him, like when Detective Gryce answers the question whom he suspects of the murder, and he says “Every one and nobody.”

Or when he says, “It is not enough to look for evidence where you expect to find it. You must sometimes search for it where you don’t.”

Or again, “Now it is a principle which every detective recognizes, 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.”

All this might bring to mind another detective in particular, perhaps the most well-known of them all: Sherlock. In fact, Detective Gryce “himself” once wrote a letter to Sherlock!

Detective Gryce was only Green’s first detective. Next time I’ll introduce you to the inspiration for Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, Miss Amelia Butterworth, who first joined forces with Gryce in That Affair Next Door.

So don’t forget: I’ll be at the Spokane South Hill Library at 2:00 on Saturday, August 24 sharing more fascinating tidbits about the marvelous Anna Katharine Green. Mark your calendar!

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