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Mr Gryce Meets His Match

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Imagine you are at a pub quiz. It’s the literature round and the theme is literary firsts. What was the first novel in English? What was the first detective story? Readers of Slightly Foxed could probably hazard a guess at Robinson Crusoe and The Murders in the Rue Morgue. But what was the first ever piece of detective fiction written by a woman? It’s a question likely to leave most readers stumped. But just in case it ever comes up, the answer is The Leavenworth Case by Anna Katharine Green, published in 1878.

Green was born in 1846 in Brooklyn, New York. She graduated from Ripley Female College in Vermont and had ambitions to become a poet but, despite some early promise, never had much success with her verse. Undeterred, she changed direction and began work on a mystery novel. She wrote in secrecy for six years before showing the manuscript to her father, a lawyer whose experiences had partly inspired the story. Leavenworth was an instant sensation and sold over 750,000 copies within fifteen years of publication.

Leavenworth is narrated by the young lawyer of a rich business­man, Horatio Leavenworth, found murdered in his Fifth Avenue mansion. The investigation is led by Ebenezer Gryce of the NYPD. Gryce is more a shambolic Columbo than a dashing Sherlock Holmes – ‘not the thin, wiry individual with the piercing eye you are doubt­less expecting to see . . . Mr Gryce was a portly, comfortable personage with an eye that never pierced, that did not even rest on you.’ Leavenworth introduced many of the elements of detective fiction that later came to be standard features: a Watson-like assistant-cum-narrator; plenty of evidence pointing towards a love interest; and a final trap set for the killer. It is tightly plotted, fast-paced and so realistic in its use of legal and police procedure that Yale Law School made it required reading. The novel also contains all the trappi

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Imagine you are at a pub quiz. It’s the literature round and the theme is literary firsts. What was the first novel in English? What was the first detective story? Readers of Slightly Foxed could probably hazard a guess at Robinson Crusoe and The Murders in the Rue Morgue. But what was the first ever piece of detective fiction written by a woman? It’s a question likely to leave most readers stumped. But just in case it ever comes up, the answer is The Leavenworth Case by Anna Katharine Green, published in 1878.

Green was born in 1846 in Brooklyn, New York. She graduated from Ripley Female College in Vermont and had ambitions to become a poet but, despite some early promise, never had much success with her verse. Undeterred, she changed direction and began work on a mystery novel. She wrote in secrecy for six years before showing the manuscript to her father, a lawyer whose experiences had partly inspired the story. Leavenworth was an instant sensation and sold over 750,000 copies within fifteen years of publication. Leavenworth is narrated by the young lawyer of a rich business­man, Horatio Leavenworth, found murdered in his Fifth Avenue mansion. The investigation is led by Ebenezer Gryce of the NYPD. Gryce is more a shambolic Columbo than a dashing Sherlock Holmes – ‘not the thin, wiry individual with the piercing eye you are doubt­less expecting to see . . . Mr Gryce was a portly, comfortable personage with an eye that never pierced, that did not even rest on you.’ Leavenworth introduced many of the elements of detective fiction that later came to be standard features: a Watson-like assistant-cum-narrator; plenty of evidence pointing towards a love interest; and a final trap set for the killer. It is tightly plotted, fast-paced and so realistic in its use of legal and police procedure that Yale Law School made it required reading. The novel also contains all the trappings of Victorian melodrama: secret weddings, mysterious disappearances, sinister letters, false identities, wrangling over an inheritance, stagey dialogue and lashings of sentimentality. Anna Katharine Green wrote over forty novels, and her admirers ranged from Wilkie Collins to Arthur Conan Doyle who, on a trip to the States in 1894, was eager to meet her. Her eighth book to fea­ture Ebenezer Gryce was That Affair Next Door, published in 1897. It introduces a new narrator and the first of Green’s female sleuths, Miss Amelia Butterworth. Miss Butterworth is a spinster, a busybody and an obvious forerunner of Miss Marple. Amelia Butterworth appears to have led a sedate life until the night of 17 September 1895, when she hears a carriage draw up at the adjoining house. ‘I am not an inquisitive woman,’ she begins, but ‘I could not resist the temptation of leaving my bed and taking a peep through the curtains of my window.’ She spies a young couple enter­ing the residence of the Van Burnam family, and ten minutes later she sees the man leaving, alone. This is odd because the Van Burnams are on holiday and their house is empty. When the young woman fails to reappear the next day Butterworth becomes suspicious and calls a policeman. A cleaner opens the door for him and Butterworth dashes inside before he can shut the door. They find the woman lying dead, crushed beneath a heavy cabinet. When Gryce arrives to begin the investigation, Miss Butterworth takes an immediate dislike to him. Gryce refers to her as ‘this other woman’: ‘he meant me, Miss Butterworth, of Colonial ancestry and no inconsiderable importance in the social world’. A battle of wits ensues, with Miss Butterworth determined to prove her worth. When the dead woman’s hat is discovered, she immediately points out that it has only been worn once, and when, subsequently, the coroner asks how she knows, she explains that it has only one small hole from a hatpin. Having satisfied herself that she is just as shrewd and observant as Gryce, Miss Butterworth begins her own amateur investigation, hoping to beat the detective at his own game and exonerate his main suspect. ‘I was astonished to discover how much I was enjoying myself,’ she says: ‘though I have had no adventures, I feel capable of them.’ The plot of That Affair is satisfyingly convoluted, with many twists and turns, surprise revelations, false trails and red herrings. It centres on establishing the identity of the dead woman (crushed beyond recognition) and the man who entered the house with her. Was it the reckless younger brother, estranged from his family because he has married a pretty but lower-class girl, who is now missing? Or was it the elder brother, perhaps secretly having an affair with his sister-in-law? Or was it someone else altogether? Miss Butterworth is a resourceful sleuth. She eavesdrops, observes, questions and bribes, tailing suspects, posing as a nurse so she can secretly search a room, and investigating insalubrious boarding- houses, hotels and laundries. And, possessed as she is of a sense of dignity and propriety, she forces her maid Lena to accompany her on many of these expeditions. Lena is more than happy to join in and proves surprisingly quick-thinking and capable. Clothing and other subtle signifiers of status play a large part in unravelling That Affair’s tangled web of assumed and mistaken iden­tities. In this respect Miss Butterworth’s snobbery, her encyclopaedic knowledge of society gossip and her obsessive eye for the details of social niceties give her an edge over Gryce. Luckily for the modern reader, she clearly spells out the significance of the department store brands and millinery designs under discussion. The dead woman’s identity, for example, is unknown but Miss Butterworth says she must be young because ‘her narrow, pointed shoes show she has not yet reached the years of discretion’. Miss Butterworth is a wonderful comic creation and a delightfully unreliable narrator. She is clever, observant, daring and indomitable in her quest for the truth. She is also deeply prejudiced, judgemental, snobbish, spiteful, mean-spirited, proud and, above all, nosy. The battle-of-the-sexes element in the contest between Gryce’s professional investigation and Butterworth’s amateur one adds humour and tension to the proceedings. Their investigations follow completely different assumptions and uncover radically different (though equally pertinent) information. Miss Butterworth openly taunts Gryce and argues with him and these verbal duels make for the wittiest dialogue in the novel. Eventually, albeit grudgingly, Gryce comes to accept Miss Butterfield as more than a mere busy­body. At the conclusion of the book, she in turn declares that ‘Mr Gryce has never been quite the same man since the clearing up of this mystery,’ and that if he had only listened to her . . . but then she checks herself and says, ‘modest depreciation of myself [is] one of the chief attributes of my character’. Miss Butterworth might have the last word, but during the course of the book she also becomes more likeable. She forges lifelong friendships, offers a home to an unfortunate woman, sees justice done and saves at least one lady from a bigamous marriage to a gold-digging imposter. So perhaps we can forgive her her many faults, allow her her moment of triumph and be grateful that she’s not actually our next-door neighbour.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 76 © Kate Tyte 2022


About the contributor

Kate Tyte lives in Portugal where she teaches and writes short stories, which have appeared in several magazines and podcasts. She enjoys eavesdropping and people-watching, but her Portuguese is not yet good enough to uncover any crimes.

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