Thursday, 17 October 2013
"Talking of sudden disappearances the one you mention of Hannah in that Leavenworth case of ours, is not the only remarkable one which has come under my direct notice. Indeed, I know of another that in some respects, at least, surpasses that in points of interest, and if you will promise not to inquire into the real names of the parties concerned, as the affair is a secret, I will relate you my experience regarding it." (A Strange Disappearance, Chapter 1).
The opening sentence of A Strange Disappearance (1879) is an advertisement for Anna Katharine Green's first novel as much as an efficient way of setting up the narrative frame. A Strange Disappearance features the same detectives as The Leavenworth Case, and it is another crime mystery. It promises to be sensational by revealing an affair that has been kept secret. Readers know right away what to expect from this "novel case" (that is the title of chapter 1).
The internal, first-person narrator is introduced:
"The Speaker was Q, the rising young detective, universally acknowledged by us of the force as the most astute man for mysterious and unprecedented cases, then in the bureau, always and of course excepting Mr Gryce; ... (A Strange Disappearance, Chapter 1).
Q and Gryce are paid for their detective services by the client who comes to the police for help (A Strange Disappearance, Chapter 3). Q also hopes to gain a further reward for capturing wanted criminals (A Strange Disappearance, Chapter 7). In addition to financial motivation, Q has professional ambitions. When Gryce hints that Q has missed a clue: "More nettled than I would be willing to confess, I walked back with him to the station, saying nothing then, but inwardly determined to reëstablish my reputation with Mr Gryce before the affair was over," (A Strange Disappearance, Chapter 4).
Q is not then entirely mercenary but takes pride in his work and wants to create a name for himself in the force. The relationship between Q and his superior Mr Gryce provides a useful motor for the narrative when Q aspires to make a good impression on Gryce. Q is, above all, a career detective: "But once in the room of the missing girl, every consideration fled save that of professional pride and curiosity." (A Strange Disappearance, Chapter 2).
There are vague echoes of Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes at the opening of A Strange Disappearance (A Study in Scarlet was published in 1887). In his case histories, Watson too refers occasionally to Holmes's other cases. Like Watson, Q is a side-kick to an eccentric master detective whose unfathomable logic both amazes and exasperates those who try to follow his reasoning. One of Green's noted contributions to the detective genre is a serial detective. Q and Gryce were later followed by Amelia Butterworth and Violet Strange in Green's works. Of course, Emile Gaboriau already had M. Lecoq and Edgar Allan Poe had C. Auguste Dupin before Green created Mr. Gryce.
Q begins his story by describing how Mrs Daniels appears at the police station requesting the help of a detective to find a girl who went missing from her employer's house the previous night. The narrative sets up the relative positions of Q and Mr Gryce by showing Mrs Daniels as wanting the professionally reassuring advice of the older master detective and being dubious about Q's abilities: "isn't there someone here more responsible than yourself that I can talk to?" (A Strange Disappearance, Chapter 1) According to Mrs Daniels a seamstress called Emily has been abducted from her room. Mrs Daniels is the house-keeper of Mr Blake, an "aristocratic representative of New York's oldest family" (A Strange Disappearance, Chapter 7), a wealthy, recluse bachelor, with a large house on 2nd Avenue.
The first four chapters of A Strange Disappearance establish the mystery Q and Gryce have to solve. They also establish another convention of the detective genre that has been attributed to Green: fair game. At the scene of the assumed abduction, Q and Mr Gryce examine Emily's room carefully and question Mrs Daniels and other servants. Q is methodical and presents all the details to the reader: "let me state the facts in the order in which I noticed them." (A Strange Disappearance, Chapter 2) Later Gryce assures Q:
"I have come across nothing that was not in plain sight for any body who had eyes to see it. ... You had it all before you ... and if you were not able to pick up sufficient facts on which to base a conclusion, you mustn't blame me for it." (A Strange Disappearance, Chapter 4)
Green was the author who first turned a story of detection into a neat puzzle that readers were invited to solve alongside the detective. Detection is here moving away from a subversive and morally questionable activity towards a parlour game.
This shift towards crime as primarily an intellectual puzzle, removes much of the dubious aura surrounding the domestic spying associated with detective work in British sensation fiction. There is no shame in detection here. Even the apparently ultra-respectable Mr Blake assures Mr Gryce: "let no consideration of my great inherent dislike to notoriety of any kind interfere what you consider your duty." (A Strange Disappearance, Chapter 3).
Q follows Mr Blake to a charity ball and spies his meeting with Countess De Mirac:
"I took advantage of the moment and made haste to conceal myself behind a curtain as near that vicinity as possible. .... Taking out my knife, I ripped open a seam in the curtain hanging before me and looked through." (A Strange Disappearance, Chapter 5)
Q has no qualms about eavesdropping on other people's private conversation. Later Q enlists the help of Blake's servant girl Fanny to listen at doors (A Strange Disappearance, Chapter 8). And he persuades his landlady to take part in a plot to capture some of her lodgers. (A Strange Disappearance, Chapter 16). There seems to be no shame associated with any of the tricks employed by the detective police. This is distinctly different from British popular fiction of the time, which frequently apologizes for the necessity for detectives. The reason for this difference may be, as suggested above, that Green was looking at crime as an entertaining puzzle rather than as uncomfortable social deviance. Therefore, the intrusive quality of detective work was not to be taken as a serious moral concern. However, the reason may also be that Green was American, and therefore not lumbered with British manners and social conventions (considerably more of that later).
When Mr Blake learns that Q has been shadowing him, he is outraged: "Have the city authorities presumed to put a spy on my movements ...?"
"Mr. Blake," observed Mr. Gryce, and I declare I was proud of my superior at that moment, "no man who is a true citizen and a Christian should object to have his steps followed, when by his own thoughtlessness, perhaps, he has incurred a suspicion which demands it." (A Strange Disappearance, Chapter 10).
Here is another moment of either the American idea of equality or an indication of the shift towards the format of modern detective fiction. No matter how high your position or rank in society, no matter how rigid your apparent respectability, no matter how great your wealth, you are always fair game to a detective.