Wednesday, December 17, 2014
The Leavenworth Case by Anna Katherine Green
This is my final book for the Back to the Classics Challenge! I can't believe I took so long to finish it. I think I took so long to get to this category (mystery/suspense/thriller) because I had a hard time deciding which book to read. The only book I own that qualifies is The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens. I kept putting it off (I've gone off Dickens somewhat this year in favor of Trollope) but I finally got an audio copy from the library, and I just couldn't get into it. (I'm not sure if it was the reader, or if it's because the main character kept referring to the girl he loves as Pussy.)
Instead, I decided to look for another author. I thought about Agatha Christie, but I honestly think I've read every single one of her mysteries, except for the Tommy and Tuppence stories. I was searching online for other classic mysteries and I discovered The Leavenworth Case by Anna Katherine Green, an early mystery published in 1878, a full nine years before Sherlock Holmes, and by a woman! Naturally, I was intrigued.
Here's the setup: Mr. Raymond (we never learn his first name), is the junior partner of a New York law firm. One day, he is alone in the office, when a very agitated young man informs him that Mr. Leavenworth, a longtime client of the firm, has been found shot and killed in the library of his home. In the absence of the other partners, Mr. Raymond agrees to go to the home and do whatever he can to help, and is therefore drawn into the mystery. The body was found in a room locked from the outside, and a servant girl is missing. Suspicion immediately falls upon Mr. Leavenworth's two beautiful nieces, cousins whom he adopted when their parents died years ago. Mary, the younger of the two, was Mr. Leavenworth's intended heir, but Mr. Raymond is immediately smitten with the other niece, Eleanor.
However, the evidence is rather bad for the two cousins. There are scraps of burned paper found in the grate, a missing key, and most damning, the fact that Eleanor knew how to fire the very same pistol used to shoot her uncle. Mr. Raymond is so convinced of the ladies' innocence that he begins working with Mr. Ebeneezer Gryce, a private detective, to get to the truth of the matter.
I was really hoping that this would be an amazing discovery for me, a brilliant book that nobody reads anymore. But sadly, it was a really slow read for a mystery. It's rather wordy and melodramatic, almost a cross between a mystery and a Victorian sensation novel. There's not a lot of motivation or character development. For example, it seems that Mr. Leavenworth chose Mary heir to his fortune when she was a child, simply because she was a blonde! And Raymond mentions over and over that the two cousins are beautiful and charming, but that's pretty much it for their descriptions. Most of the characters are fairly flat. The most interesting characters were Mr. Gryce and his assistant, the mysterious "Q" who is a master of disguise.
However, I'm probably judging it too harshly by modern standards. For its time, it was most likely groundbreaking. It was very popular and Anna Katherine Green wrote a total of more than 40 books, including eight other books about Mr. Gryce. She was one of the first to write a series of novels about a detective, and also wrote about female detectives. It's not among the best detective stories I've ever read, but I think it's worth reading simply for its historical value.