Originally published in 1878
Ebenezer Gryce #1
Followed by A Strange Disappearance
When the retired merchant Horatio Leavenworth is found shot dead in his mansion library, suspicion falls on his nieces, Mary and Eleanore, who stand to inherit his vast fortune. Their lawyer, Everett Raymond, infatuated with one of the sisters, is determined that the official investigator, detective Ebenezer Gryce, widens the inquiry to less obvious suspects.
A reminder that being important doesn’t always equate to being entertaining.
I have been told that one of the frustrating things about following my blog is that I often post about books that can be a little hard, if not impossible, to find. While I have no intention of stopping reading and writing about those types of books, I am aware that for many people the institutions and businesses they typically rely on to find new books are inaccessible to them.
For at least the next few months I have decided to feature several books a month that are within the Public Domain and that you can read online for free. Some of those books will be well known but I intend to stick with my habit of picking out an occasional obscure or little-reviewed title to discuss.
Today’s book is perhaps not widely known though given it is a landmark title as the first successful work of detective fiction by a female novelist. The book, the first by Anna Katharine Green, was a bestseller becoming popular on both sides of the Atlantic and influencing other mystery writers including that little-known writer, Agatha Christie.
The story concerns the death of Horatio Leavenworth, a wealthy retired merchant who was found dead of a gunshot wound to his head in his library. As no one could have left the mansion before the discovery of the body, suspicion falls on the other members of the household.
Everett Raymond, a young lawyer who had been sent on behalf of his firm to handle the case, forms a strong attraction to one of the suspects and works with the official investigator in the hope of proving her innocence.
While I do not generally read others’ reviews until after I have written my own, I did take a look at several articles discussing why the book had fallen from popularity including the excellent one by Curtis Evans which I link to below. A common theme seems to be that Green’s writing style is very much in the Victorian style making it hard going.
Certainly I think it is fair to say that her storytelling style is not as direct as it could be. A good example of this comes when Everett offers his initial descriptions of the deceased man’s two young cousins, rhapsodizing for several paragraphs about their beauty. This sort of stuff can certainly be dull and feels unnecessary but I never felt Green’s language is too complex or obscure to be understood, even if she does employ some melodramatic turns of phrase. Nor do I think it out of keeping with Conan Doyle’s efforts in A Study in Scarlet or The Sign of Four several years later, both of which feature lengthy and rather dull accounts. It does sometimes make for frustrating reading however as overwrought and melodramatic passages serve to slow the narrative down.
One of the reasons I think it is particularly problematic is that Green chooses to begin her book with the murder having already taken place and our protagonist already knowing some basic details of the case. The practical effect of this choice is that the scenes in which we get to know Everett and later Gryce have to happen during the inquest – a section of the book which already feels quite dense – and this material serves to slow those chapters down considerably.
To return to that earlier example of the florid paragraphs in which Everett rhapsodies about a woman’s beauty, this is not only establishing her qualities. It is also used to tell us something of nature that we will need to understand to justify some of his later efforts in investigating the case.
Though Everett can be a somewhat melodramatic and long-winded narrator, I did find him to be quite a charming protagonist. I liked his attempts to be gallant (such as his revulsion at the idea of being ‘a spy in a fair woman’s house’) and appreciated that Green points out some of the moments where he struggles to reconcile his duties to the law with his personal feelings about the case in some brilliant conversations with the much less partial Gryce.
I also appreciated that Everett’s relationship with Gryce, the man formally investigating the crime, is more professional and cordial than warm. There clearly there are moments in the adventure where each man frustrates the other and even work against each other – a reflection of their different priorities in their handling of this case.
The first section of the novel follows the revelations made at an inquest into the murder, providing us with introductions to the characters and the basic details of the crime. Green gives us an effective outline of the key points of the case and while I wished she didn’t always feel the need to provide every beat of the proceedings, the information is clearly conveyed and establishes an interesting crime scene where the evidence seems to point at one person.
Having established the case that has been made against the subject of Everett’s affections, the subsequent sections focus on the investigation itself.
Unfortunately these sections surprisingly feel less energetic and exciting than the earlier inquest chapters, in part because there are so few significant revelations. While Everett and Gryce identify what they need to find and have a plan to get it, the journey to acquire that information feels a little slow and there are few surprises.
When we do get some information however things pick up again and the final quarter of the book, though packed with melodramatic developments and declarations, feels pacier and much more entertaining. Some of the elements used by Green feel primitive compared with works even a decade later (my favorite such moment involves a very breakable code used in chapter twenty-eight) but I was impressed by just how many ideas appear here that would be standard elements in future works.
I suspect that most readers will find aspects of the killer’s confession a little ridiculous – particularly the chapter in which we read their account of the crime which goes on too long.
The problem that I think The Leavenworth Case has is that because of many of its modern detective story elements such as its forensic discussions it feels like it should belong to a later era than the one it was actually written in. I do think though it is important to remember that this is essentially a transitional text, moving us from a style of sensation fiction to something approaching the modern detective story. I certainly did not judge it to be any less satisfying than A Study in Scarlet or The Sign of Four, both of which also have their moments.
This issue really sums up my feelings about the book as a whole. It is undoubtedly an important title in the development of the genre but its slow midsection and dense, melodramatic prose means that it wasn’t always all that entertaining to read.
Curtis Evans wrote a superb piece for Crime Reads that looks at how the critical reception for this novel has changed in the years since it was first published.
Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime writes a brilliantly detailed review that is broken down into themes and goes pretty deep. There are some spoilers there but all are marked so can be avoided. It can best be summed up as melodramatic but well-constructed.
Criminal Element published a post in which they discussed the book, dubbing it ‘the most popular mystery novel you’ve never read’.