Happy Birthday, Anna Katharine Green!

Happy Birthday, Anna Katharine Green!

This week I wanted to give a special homage to the woman who’s become a huge part of my life lately: the remarkable Anna Katharine Green.

On this day, November 11, in 1846, Anna Katharine Green was born to New England lawyer James Wilson Green and Katharine Ann Whitney Green. She was the fourth child, the second daughter. She would grow up as the youngest, though she did have a younger brother who was born in 1849. He died, along with her mother, in a cholera epidemic that summer. Although born as Anna Catherine, she would change the spelling of her middle name officially in honor of her mother upon the publication of her first novel. James Green would eventually remarry to a woman Anna referred to affectionately as Mother Grace. It was her stepmother who would encourage her to try her hand at writing a mystery, rather than the poetry to which Anna aspired after college.

History is eternally grateful to Mother Grace for this encouragement, for Anna would become the inspiration of many thanks to her affluence as a detective mystery writer, beginning with her first novel, The Leavenworth Case, published in 1878.

As Patricia Maida writes in Mother of Detective Fiction, “Green was recognized as the female stylist who helped shape detective fiction into the classic form we see today.”

I love her term “female stylist” for Anna. Indeed, in The Leavenworth Case 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!

We end up with a detective who inspired the creation of Sherlock Holmes to begin with, and infinitely more beyond him. 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.”

It is in her writing that we find that pattern to which Agatha Christie would aspire, leading her to become the Queen of Crime: “according to convention, the puzzle is mathematically stimulating, thereby engaging reader interest and inviting participation in solving the mystery” (Maida).

Howard Haycraft writes in Murder for Pleasure, Anna Katharine Green’s “plots are models of careful construction that can still hold their own against today’s competition. For this quality, and by virtue of precedence and sustained popularity, she occupies an undisputed and honorable place in the development of the American detective story.”

Her first novel, The Leavenworth Case, was an overnight bestseller, and had sold over a million copies by the time of her death. When Anna Katharine Green died, The New York Times had this to say:

April 12, 1935. “Noted Author, 88. ‘The Leavenworth Case’ in ’78 Followed by 36 Other Books. Wife of Charles Rohlfs. Wanted to Write Poetry. Wrote Detective Stories to Draw Attention to Her Verse. Changed Mystery Fiction.”

Happy birthday, Anna Katharine Green. You are not forgotten!



*Thanks goes out especially to Patricia D Maida, author of Mother of Detective Fiction, the only biographical book about Anna Katharine Green.

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