Source: Review Copy (Harper Collins)
This is a book and author I have been aware of since I first began being interested in crime fiction as a genre. However, I have only read a short story or two of Green’s starring Violet Strange and the first of her Amelia Butterworth novels, That Affair Next Door (1897) (which also made it into my Top 3 Crime Novels Pre 1929). This novel was an important milestone for the character of the elderly female sleuth. Yet this novel is not the only reason why Green is called ‘the mother of detective fiction,’ as The Leavenworth Case (1878), as John Curran asserts in the Harper Collins’ introduction, was fundamental in giving birth and developing many components of what we now know as Golden Age detective fiction. In this book alone there is a ‘body in the locked library, a victim on the point of changing his will, a floor plan of the murder scene, a coroner’s inquest with medical and ballistic evidence, and a second death.’ There is even ‘a numbered listing of significant points’ about the crime being investigated.
The story is mostly told in the first person by Everett Raymond, a lawyer and junior partner in the law firm used by Mr Leavenworth or should I say used to use, as Leavenworth’s private secretary, James Trueman Harwell bursts into the first chapter announcing the murder of his employer, who has been found shot dead in his own locked library that very morning. Raymond is brought into the case to watch the interests of Leavenworth’s two nieces, Mary and Eleanore at the inquest, though it seems Raymond has taken on more than he has bargained for. Not only are his affections made captive on first sight by Eleanore, but it also seems that his romantic ardour will require him to do some amateur sleuthing in order to clear her name which rapidly seems to be involved in the murder of her uncle. It is quickly established that only someone within the household could have committed the murder. Although Leavenworth’s will favours Mary, there is a lot of circumstantial evidence against Eleanore such as her suspicious behaviour after her uncle’s body is discovered and her disinclination to explain why her handkerchief is found covered in pistol grease and why she was seen to be trying to get rid of the library door key. Moreover her and Mary’s silence on matters makes this case even harder to solve. Why do the two nieces not get on? Who is Eleanore shielding? A blast from the past seems to yield the answer, but as Gryce knows better than most, not everything is what it seems…
Gryce and Raymond – The Professional and Amateur Sleuth
One of the things which gives this novel a slight sensation fiction edge is the more dominant role of the family lawyer- now amateur detective, in comparison to the smaller narrative space given to Detective Gryce who actually solves the case. Gryce is described as deifying reader expectation, not being ‘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.’ Although that does not mean he is not observant as Mary Leavenworth says that ‘nothing can escape the penetration of… [his] eye.’ He is very willing to work with Raymond, despite the subsequent difficulties this presents, as Raymond often likes to play a lone hand for the most snobbish of reasons, thinking only he is able to interpret the clues he finds correctly, though of course events prove this false. Normally an amateur sleuth like this who is a bit sanctimonious and subconsciously suffering from social and intellectual snobbery would annoy me. But this time round this wasn’t the case and I found it interesting to contrast the two detective figures and looking at how Raymond’s social prejudices and chivalric notions give him tunnel vision and thereby hamper his detecting abilities. Yet of course the narrative itself, dominated by Raymond, does not consciously present him as being in such a position and it is interesting to look at how police detectives are perceived.
Reflecting back on the novel I realised that there is number of doubles or doubling up types which then contrast with each other such as the two detective figures and the two nieces. There is another doubling instance I can think of but it probably constitutes a spoiler. There is also a feeling of doubling within Raymond himself as on entering the inquest he says:
‘I found myself experiencing something of the same sensation of double personality which years before had followed an enforced use of ether. I appeared to be living two lives at once: in two distinct places, with two separate sets of incidents going on…’
The two nieces though are probably the most significant example of doubling. Raymond on dreaming about them and the case says, ‘It was like a double vision of light and darkness that, while contrasting, neither assimilated nor harmonised’ and there is a moment where you wonder whether Raymond is attracted to both of the nieces. Both nieces arguably represent a different type of femininity in some ways. Eleanore comes across as much more sincere and is resolutely silent, whilst Mary is far more ready to employ her feminine wiles on those around her. Yet their mixture of faults and virtues means that the dichotomy of a woman being an angel or devil (which can be found in numerous Victorian novels) is unattainable in this book.
Characterisation and Reader Assumptions
For me the inquest is a crucial part of the text as it sets up the reader with some vital clues, but also a number of red herrings, based on how the characters and the reader judge certain people, particularly the two nieces. Further information about the case is also drawn out in an engaging way. I enjoyed the guessing or deduction process of evaluating the testimonies given and making judgements on the characters. This first section of the story also plays on the readers’ emotions, making the reader alternate between which niece they side with, though the reader soon finds themselves doubting who is guilty and who is innocent. Both nieces have their own not so endearing qualities. Mary comes across as very insincere and calculating, employing sickeningly sweet speech to endear herself to the male figures around her. Conversely Eleanore seems more genuine, yet consequently gives a very poor impression of herself, appearing quite haughty and guiltily suspicious at times. Outwards appearances are certainly deceptive in this book and Green is adept at portraying morally ambiguous characters. The nieces are guilty of acting and speaking melodramatically sometimes, but I think this is kept in check so it doesn’t become wearing for the modern day reader.
When I reviewed When Last I Died (1941) earlier this month I looked at the attitudes towards female killers or women who are suspected of murder, with various external factors determining how lenient the judge or jury will be. A similar theme comes up in this book, though for people like Raymond, a female killer is patently absurd due to his buying into of traditional notions of femininity: ‘you cannot have the temerity to declare that this young and tender creature can by any possibility be considered as at all likely to be implicated in a crime so monstrous unnatural.’
Suffice to say that Green knows her Shakespeare well, quoting from various plays at the start of her chapters. Macbeth, Hamlet and Othello are often used, although Green also touches on The Tempest, Much Ado About Nothing, Julius Caesar and The Merchant of Venice. Anyone considering to continue the work begun by Lisa Hopkins’ Shakespearean Allusions in Crime Fiction (2016), would do well to start here. I wouldn’t say these quotes are just space fillers and in some ways I think there are a couple of characters who easily parallel or connect with the figure of Othello, whose blind passion inhibits him seeing the truth about someone. Moreover I think the Macbeth allusions tie into the crime motivations, though in a way they are a little bit of a red herring.
Chivalry and Chivalric love – SPOILERS!
These two themes are subtly intertwined with both those trying to solve the murder and with the person who did the killing. I have already discussed Raymond’s chivalric notions when it comes to the murky job of detecting, so I am going to focus on our killer’s interaction with these two themes. In their hands chivalry and chivalric love is reinvented, but in such a way that is becomes twisted and sullied. For example in the 19th century Leon Gautier wrote a list of ten commandments summing up the chivalric code of the 11th and 12 the centuries. Two of them in particular are ‘Thou shalt respect all weaknesses, and shalt constitute thyself the defender of them’ and ‘Thou shalt be everywhere and always the champion of the Right and the Good against Injustice and Evil.’ When it comes to the confession of the killer it can be said they perceive themselves as a knight who needed to rescue Mary Leavenworth from the tyranny of her uncle. In particular the killer says they committed the murder in response to her cry for help, which she thought no one had heard. Yet what the killer actually does is far from protect and defend Mary, he brings her and her niece under grave suspicion, nearly getting them arrested. Moreover, he is an unwarranted champion. This led me to think about chivalric or courtly love as in such a situation ‘the lover accepts the independence of his mistress and tries to make himself worthy of her by acting bravely and honourably and by doing whatever deeds she might desire, subjecting himself to a series of tests to prove to her his ardour and commitment’ (Wiki). Mary is certainly haughty enough to be the object of a knight’s desire and the killer themselves sees the murder and the subsequent events as tests which prove his devotion. Yet because they have committed murder on their own initiative, there is no honour or bravery in their acts. Furthermore, this chivalric vision is only in the killer’s head, unsupported by and repelled by Mary when she finds out about it, leaving the killer in a tortuous position: ‘and I have given my soul to hell for a shadow.’ I suppose in one way Green could be suggesting the potential dangers of chivalry or its’ place in 19th century America. Additionally I would say that although Raymond is not led to commit criminal acts due to his chivalric notions, it is shown that these notions do inhibit his ability to detect and it is due to Gryce, who does not have such notions, that the truth is discovered and consequently Gryce comes across as a more modern person.
Criminal Psychology and the Killer – SPOILERS!
At the end of the book the reader is given the murderer’s own confession, which is not repetitious and nor is it there to just to fill space. I think this section shows again Green developing crime fiction and sowing seeds for later writers. In particular this confession reminded me of Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley, as both he and the killer share an unusual interaction with emotions and on the outside seem to feel nothing: ‘life was well-nigh a blank to me; a dead level plain that had to be traversed whether I would or not.’ Moreover, they are people who do not fit well with those around them. They fail to make meaningful relationships and there is a sense of duplicity about them.
Although it has its melodramatic moments, this is a strong and well-constructed mystery, with plenty of clues (physical and psychological), as well as a good handful of red herrings. It would not have been too out of place if it had been published in the 1920s in my opinion such are the parallels between Golden Age detective fiction and this its’ predecessor. Its’ reputation as a cornerstone in detective fiction writing is certainly justified and I’d warmly recommend it.
Line which stood out the most: ‘I wished to knit her beauty so firmly into the warp and woof of my being…’ (What on earth does woof mean in this context?)