Who was the First? Bellwethers and Mystery

Who was the First? Bellwethers and Mystery

Who was the first author to introduce us to “the locked room mystery”?

Who was the first to use a recurring series detective?

Who was the first to have their detective gather everyone together in a room so that he might explain precisely the murderer’s motive?

Who was the first to give us that daring twist at the end that has become a hallmark of the best mystery novels?

Was Anna Katharine Green really the first female American detective mystery author?

It’s difficult to track who did what first, because let’s be honest, although Edgar Allan Poe is often named the Father of American Detective Mystery, he didn’t come up with everything Dupin says and does on his own. He was inspired. All authors are inspired by something. And in the end, there is nothing new under the sun.

As Lucy Sussex writes in Women Writers and Detectives in Nineteenth Century Crime Fiction (pub 2010), there’s really no one person who is The First, and in fact she ends with Anna Katharine Green rather than beginning with her, though she is often called the Mother of American Detective Mystery.

Readers of Connie Willis’s Bellwether will understand this concept: that nothing starts in one place. Bellwether follows the escapades of a young female scientist as she tries to track why fads become fads. I think I can say, without completely giving away the ending, that she determines that there is always a bellwether, which is someone unnamed, unknown, untraceable, and forgotten who starts the fads. It’s never someone looking to start a fad, always someone who does it without realizing it.

There’s too much creativity and ingenuity in humanity to trace an idea back to a single origin.

What shouldn’t be lost in the discussion, however, is that although Green may not be the first to write a locked room mystery or a recurring detective, she is certainly the mother of the modern detective mystery novel in many other senses. As Patricia Maida writes in Mother of Detective Fiction, “Although other writers had written mystery fiction before her, Green was recognized as the female stylist who helped shape detective fiction into the classic form we see today.” Alma Murch in The Development of the Detective Novel writes that in “Green’s work we can discern for the first time, in its entirety, the pattern that became characteristic of most English detective novels written during the following fifty years.”

In The Leavenworth Case (published 1878), Anna incorporated and often invented many of the devices recognized by mystery authors today as essential pieces, like cliffhanger chapter endings, the locked room mystery, a plot carried forward mostly by dialogue rather than description, the importance of ballistics, an inquest, 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 with a classic trap into which the killer falls. And all of that just in her FIRST novel!

Anna Katharine Green was undoubtedly inspired by numerous unnamed bellwethers, as well as famous authors who’d gone before her. Poe’s Dupin stories are all short stories, though he does use the recurring detective, deductive reasoning, and false leads. Louisa May Alcott’s novella The Mysterious Key and What it Opened published in 1867 is most certainly a mystery, and one could argue includes one of the first amateur detectives. There’s also Metta Victor, writing under the pseudonym of Seeley Register, and her publication in 1866 of The Dead Letter. And prior to that several short stories by Harriet Prescott Spofford: “In a Cellar” (1859), “Mr. Furbush” (1865), and “In the Maguerriwock” (1868). (A marvelous resource was recently brought to my attention in The Westminster Detective Library where you can read American detective stories all published before 1891!)

In Europe, notably in Britain with Wilkie Collins and in France with Émile Gaboriau, recognizable mystery themes were already making their appearance. Gaboriau’s recurring series detective Lecoq used guile, deduction, interviews, and disguise to solve his mysteries. And Collins’s Moonstone (published 1868) included concepts like red herrings, the less-than-adequate local police, a reconstruction of the crime, an inside job, the country house murder, and, of course, the unforgettable final twist.

But then don’t forget whom Anna Katharine Green herself went on to inspire, not the least being the most renowned detective of all time, Sherlock Holmes, who wouldn’t make his public debut until 1887, as well as Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and more! Each author pays it forward to the next wave of writers, all the way to and including myself!

Green’s stories—with their Victorian nature including backstories that could be counted as short stories themselves—are still remarkable for their twists and turns. Her mysteries are extremely well-plotted, often unsolvable right up to the very end, except where she purposely makes it a whydunnit instead of a whodunnit. Because of her poetry background, she is able to limit her word choice, choosing only the finest dialogue and description to be included. Although it may not be considered “high literature,” her books are still very good reads even for a modern audience, because she clearly understood people, believing:

“Normal people are not so much interested in crime itself as they are in the motive behind the act, or in the person committing it, or in the mystery surrounding it, or in some extraordinary circumstance connected with it. To be interested simply in crime, merely as crime, is either morbid or scientific. Most of us are neither. We are just human; and with us it is the motive which rouses our curiosity.” —Anna Katharine Green, “Why Human Beings are Interested in Crime,” 1919

In the end, I don’t believe it matters whether Anna Katharine Green was the first, for she was definitely (in my opinion) the best, and she brought together what others had never thought to bring before. In some ways she’s become a bellwether, her name forgotten by history, though her influence is evident throughout mystery literature.

I strongly recommend The Leavenworth Case, if you’re looking for a good first Green novel to pick up. At least, until my historical fiction novel, A Woman’s Intuitions, is published, of course. 😉

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