Thursday, 17 October 2013

The American Idea of Equality and Detectives

Anna Katharine is a very American writer. A Strange Disappearance is set in New York with a trip to Vermont. We move through Mr Blake's aristocratic house with "heavily frescoed ceilings" (A Strange Disappearance, Chapter 2) to the "dark, narrow streets of the East Side" "with hand on the trigger of the pistol I carried in my pocket" (A Strange Disappearance, Chapter 6) and Pier 48 E.R. to view the body of a drowned girl ("Pity the features are not better preserved." [A Strange Disappearance, Chapter 9]). Detectives glide effortlessly along the social scale and between different milieus. These scenes of New York life, as Patricia D. Maida suggests, give Green's work value as social history. But they alone do not make the tale distinctly American.
In 1828 Frances Trollope (1780-1863) travelled from London to Cincinnati and stayed there for two years. Four years later she published Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832). The book was immensely popular, and it is still a very interesting and entertaining read (note the waste management procedures for Cincinnati). It was the first of many tales of British ladies' travels among the uncouth Americans. Already in this early work, Trollope noted the three qualities that became closely associated with the British view of American life: the idea of equality, the single-minded pursuit of money and the general lack of good manners.
In A Strange Disappearance we see an American class system. The Blake family occupies the top, the Schoenmakers with their rough German accents are pretty much at the bottom. Luttra Schoenmaker manages to move from the bottom to the top and become Mrs Blake. This is extreme upward mobility. The whole plot of the novel depends on this scenario of the wealthy, respectable Blake marrying the poor, (initially) uneducated and unsophisticated Miss Schoenmaker. The first "symptom of American equality" observed by Frances Trollope was a milliner in New Orleans whose "society ... was highly valued by all persons of talent." (Trollope, Chapter 2). Later she writes about her difficulties to find a suitable servant: "The whole class of young women, whose bread depends upon their labour, are taught to believe, that the most abject poverty is preferable to domestic service." - They think "Their equality is compromised." (Trollope, Chapter 6). She employs a girl who stays only as long as she has earned enough money to buy new clothes:  "Her sister was also living with me, but her wardrobe was not yet completed, and she remained some weeks longer, till it was." (Trollope, Chapter 6). When Mr Blake decides to pay for Luttra Schoenmaker's schooling, she is "to go out to service in Melville and earn enough money to provide herself with clothes." (A Strange Disappearance,  Chapter 12).
Frances Trollope wondered if the Americans' eagerness to pursue wealth was due to "the unceasing goad which necessity applies to industry in this country, and in the absence of all resource to the idle" (Trollope, Chapter 5). Nothing, she says, distracts the Americans from the chase for more money; "neither art, science, learning, nor pleasure can seduce them from its pursuit." (Ibid.) Money is the main motivating force behind the actions of both the detectives and the criminals in A Strange Disappearance. Q and Mr. Gryce sell their services as detectives and expect to be paid by Mrs Daniels and Mr Blake. The Schoenmakers aim to make money out of Blake, first by robbing him and later by blackmailing him. Mr Blake's father's will is also important, because it is the threat of disinheritance which gives Mr Blake the idea of marrying Luttra Schoenmaker. Luttra is the only character in the novel who is no driven by the desire to make money. Quite the opposite, she tears up the note that offers her the Blake inheritance.
Americans lack manners, according to Frances Trollope: "The total and universal want of manners, both in males and females, is so remarkable, that I was constantly endeavouring to account for it." (Trollope, Chapter 5). Men spit incessantly, and seldom hit the spittoon ("But oh! That carpet! I will not, I may not, describe its condition ..." [Trollope, Chapter 2]). They eat their dinners quickly and without conversation. They have no table manners (Trollope, Chapter 3). Q does not spit at the charity ball, but he is quite happy to cut open a seam in the curtains to give him a peep hole (A Strange Disappearance, Chapter 2). He cosies up to Fanny in order to get information from her (A Strange Disappearance, Chapter 8).  He breaks into the Schoenmakers' house  and carries away a ring he finds there (A Strange Disappearance, Chapter 7). He unashamedly visits Countess De Mirac pretending to be an antique seller and seizes an opportunity to read a letter on the table while her back is turned (A Strange Disappearance, Chapter 8). Q is a resourceful young man, keen to do his job and get the credit. But he is not overly burdened with the finer points of social conventions and good manners.
Trollope suggests that all these American qualities are tied together:  "Any man's son may become the equal of any other man's son, and the consciousness of this is certainly a spur to exertion; on the other hand, it is also a spur to that coarse familiarity, untempered by any shadow of respect, which is assumed by the grossest and the lowest in their intercourse with the highest and most refined." (Trollope, Chapter 12)
I have already suggested that this fundamental idea of equality is further reflected in Green's writing in the way all characters whether low- of high-class, are capable of lofty speeches and grand words. It is also reflected in the freedom with which the detectives pursue their investigations. There is no shame in detecting, there is no hesitation in the use of all methods available to spy on people, appropriate evidence and capture the culprits. Yes, ... about capturing the culprits ...
(Plot Spoiler Alert)
Despite the fair game all around (and Green's own religious convictions), justice in A Strange Disappearance  is relative. The final resolution of the mystery is very much what the Audleys of Audley Court might have come up with. Mr Blake gets his wife after she demonstrates that she is not returning to him for money, but for love: "I am a woman and therefore weak to the voice of love ..." (A Strange Disappearance, Chapter 18). Under Mr Gryce's benevolent gaze and with Q providing the final piece of leverage, Mr Blake pays off the Schoenmakers, his wife's embarrassingly criminal relatives, with a "liberal" monthly sum. The Schoenmakers promise to stay away from the Blakes, as long as Mr Blake and the two detectives do not reveal that they are murderers: "Do you three promise to keep our secret if we keep yours?" (Ibid.) The Schoenmakers avoid the scaffold and get away with murder so that Mr Blake does not have to suffer the shame of being married to a daughter and a sister of such men. Instead, they are bundled off to jail for a few years for the lesser crime of bank robbery. (Ibid.) Such a deal is very 'Victorian' in the way it protects respectable people from the taint of scandal. But it is also disturbing in its implications, because it shows explicitly how the wealthy can buy the law and change reality to suit themselves.

Q's Turn of Phrase

"I saw him gaze at her handsome head piled high with its midnight tresses amid which the jewels, doubtless of her dead lord, burned with fierce and ominous glare, at her smooth olive brow, her partly veiled eyes where the fire passionately blazed, at her scarlet lips trembling with an emotion her rapidly flushing cheeks would not allow her to conceal. I saw his glances fall and embrace her whole elegant form with its casing of ruby velvet and ornamentation of lace and diamonds, and an expectant thrill passed through me ..." (A Strange Disappearance, Chapter 5)
Does this sound like Q? A young man who embraces the rough and ready life of a New York police detective? Do not forget that the story is framed as a tale told by Q around the fire at the station house. Here Q watches Countess De Mirac at a charity ball. Later in the story, he describes an abandoned house:
"Turning around I eyed the house once more. How altered it looked to me! What a murderous aspect it wore, how dismally secret were the tight shut windows and closely fastened doors, on one of which a rude cross scrawled in red chalk met the eye with a mysterious significance. Even the old pine had acquired a villainous air of the uncanny repositor of secrets too dreadful to reveal, as it groaned and murmured to itself in the keen east wind. Dark deeds and foul wrong seemed written all over the fearful place, from the long strings of black moss that clung to the worm-eaten eaves, to the worn stone with its great blotch of something, - could it have been blood? - that served as a threshold to the door." (A Strange Disappearance, Chapter 7)
This is the convoluted, heavy language that, as Patricia D. Maida has suggested, became Anna Katharine Green's downfall, when her style failed to move with the times as the nineteenth century ended. Look at the overabundance of words piled high in the extract above: every noun is qualified to create a shiver: murderous, dismally, tight, closely, rude, mysterious, old, villainous, uncanny, dreadful, keen, dark, foul, fearful, long, black, worm-eaten, worn.
Green writes in a very distinct style; her voice is unique and strong. In her descriptions, she often emphasizes the emotion and passion observed or experienced by the viewer, rather than the actual physical detail of what is being viewed. Her characterization of Luttra Schoenmaker is a good example:
"But no, it was one of those faces that are indescribable. You draw your breath as you view it; you feel as if you had had an electric shock ; ... It was the character of the countenance itself that impressed you. You did not even know it this woman who might have been anything wonderful or grand you ever read of, were beautiful or not. You did not care; it was as if you had been gazing on a tranquil evening sky and a lightning flash had suddenly startled you. Is the lightning beautiful? Who asks!" (A Strange Disappearance, Chapter 10)
Green describes Luttra's appearance in terms of the sensations it creates. What matters is not the physical appearance of the woman, but her nature. Green's women are generally powerful creatures with enough strength and passion to strike fear in most men's hearts (see the description of Countess De Mirac above). 
Anna Katharine Green is superb at melodrama. She can create melodramatic scenes without overdoing them. This is because she writes beautifully. And this is where we have to forget about the internal narrator in Strange Disappearance: the style is simply not convincing as the language of our young action hero, Q.
For the most powerful melodramatic effect, look at Mr Blake's description of how he painted and kept the portrait of his wife in his private rooms (A Strange Disappearance, Chapter 13). It is a flowing, almost breathless gushing of passion and grand sentiment. It is brilliant and wildly exaggerated. It works, just, because Mr Blake is a man who, we imagine, could use words like these.
A Strange Disappearance showcases another challenge created by the first-person narrator: in order to tell the tale, Q has to be present at all the key moments. Green manages to arrange this reasonably smoothly. There are a few occasions where the magic wears thin and we see the narrative mechanics underneath. Q has to follow Mr. Gryce and Mr Blake into the latter's private rooms in order to hear Blake reveal his secret. "The man may come." Mr Blake says about Q (Strange Disappearance, Chapter 10). Q also has to rush between rooms at the denouement of the plot to make sure we get to see all: "Feeling myself no longer necessary in that spot, I followed where my wishes led and entered the room ..." (A Strange Disappearance, Chapter 19).
These restrictions of a first person narrative illustrate the two sides of Green's fiction we are examining here for their effects on the reading experience: sensational style vs the classic detective plot.
The melodramatic, decorated language does not always flow comfortably or convincingly from the lips of Green's young, lower-class, urban characters like Q. But it does make the novel a pleasure to read and works well to engage the reader's imagination. This is why Green is superb in descriptions of landscapes, people and scenes, but not so convincing in dialogue. Characters tend to get carried away with wild and lofty curlicues of expressions - all of them, in the same way. Perhaps this is another indication of the American belief in equality (everyone can express themselves with the same grandiose style). At the end of the story, various people speak to persuade Luttra to return to her husband, Mrs Daniels the housekeeper sounds pretty much the same as Countess De Mirac. Luttra Schoenmaker, a poor girl with limited formal education is able to exclaim:
"Shall the giving or the gaining of a fortune make necessary the unital of lives over which holier influences have beamed and loftier hopes shone?  No, no ... love alone, with the hope and confidence it gives, shall be the bond to draw us together and make the two separate planes  on which we stand, a common ground where we can meet and be happy." A Strange Disappearance, Chapter 20)
These are pretty sentiments, and the young lady can express herself with all the drama and pomp of an accomplished theatrical diva. This is highly entertaining, if not exactly convincing. We are in the world of sensational romance.
On the other hand, the meticulous focus on the crime as a puzzle and an almost forensic approach to its solution, invests every detail in the narrative with significance. Just like Q's presence at a scene appears occasionally a little contrived, clues and pieces of evidence appear glaringly obvious. The piece of calico, the golden hairs trapped in a hair brush, the ring in the ashes, are all details that leap out as significant as soon as they are mentioned in the course of the narrative. This is in the nature of the genre. The accusation of investing meaning in every detail was levelled at traditional sensation fiction as well. But with the focus being so exclusively on the solution of the mystery here, this aspect of the narrative becomes highlighted even more in the reader's experience.
The hard, rational logic of the plot is reflected in the clear-cut structure of the novel. It is in stark contrast with the sensational scenes and the style of writing. The plot moves from initial statement of the mystery and an analysis of the scene of crime, through a neat chain of highly melodramatic scenes, to the final denouement which includes the capture of the culprits and the rescue of the damsel. Some of these scenes are Gothic (trip to Vermont in A strange Disappearance, Chapter 7) and very traditional (A strange Disappearance, Chapter 11). They all serve a very modern mystery plot and contribute to the one aim - resolving the puzzle of the strange disappearance.
I would like to argue that the sensational, melodramatic, old-fashioned, heavy, convoluted language is the reason why Anna Katharine Green is well worth reading. It is the gloriously exuberant style and unique voice that elevate the crime puzzle in A Strange Disappearance into a wild and thrilling tale of high drama and passion.

Fair Game

"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 re√ęstablish 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.

Friday, 4 October 2013

The Strange Disappearance of Anna Katharine Green

The title A Strange Disappearance (1879) might be applied to the literary reputation of its author. The name of Anna Katharine Green (1846-1935) is almost invariably followed by the epitaph 'the mother of detective fiction.' This young woman, born in Brooklyn, the Puritan daughter of a New York lawyer, dreamed of becoming a poet. When her verses failed to find a publisher she turned her pen to a more profitable genre and,  in 1878, she published The Leavenworth Case, a fully-formed detective novel with a body in the library. 
 According to an interview Green gave in 1929, this novel was "written during an interval of tedious inactivity after she had graduated from the Ripley Female College at Poultney, Vermont." (Woodward, p168) Green graduated in 1866, it was clearly a rather long interval of inactivity. According to Patricia D. Maida, Green was "an American woman who single-mindedly pursued a literary career, despite the odds against her." (Maida, p105). These odds included a father who did not condone her choice of genre. Green wrote The Leavenworth Case in secret, only her stepmother knew about it (Maida, p22). It took her over six years to complete the manuscript (Ibid.). Green took her inspiration from the novels by Emile Gaboriau (1832-1873) and calculated that a mystery story would appeal to newspaper readers (Maida, p.10) and therefore find a publisher and an audience. Green was determined to forge a literary career for herself. There were not many job opportunities for young, unmarried, middle-class women in the 1870s, and being a celebrated authoress was considerably better than languishing in the family home at Brooklyn Heights. With the publication of The Leavenworth Case Green went from a complete unknown to a celebrity almost overnight (Maida, p4).

Anna Katharine Green, picture from Library of Congress. Source: 
Green's works strongly influenced Agatha Christie. She was also admired by Wilkie Collins and Arthur Conan Doyle (Maida, p1 Green had a long career and produced thirty-five novels. Despite her clearly recognized position in the annals of Victorian detective fiction, it appears that not much has been written about Green herself. As far as I know, there is no critical biography of her; there are not many academic studies of her works. The one book about her, Patricia D. Maida's Mother of Detective Fiction: The Life and Works of Anna Katharine Green (1989) has a 'selected bibliography' of nine (!) works about Green. Despite this, Maida's short book is an excellent introduction to Green covering her life neatly in a series of chapter arranged around aspects of her writing. More useful articles and further information on Green are available at

It is curious why someone so well known and recognized as such a significant figure in the development of a popular genre, has attracted so little attention. The reason may lie in Green's writing. Perhaps Green is just too dull to merit detailed analysis?
In the Foreword to her book on Green, Maida writes: "To nineteenth-century readers, Green offered a challenging puzzle and well developed characters. Men, as well as women, delighted in her imaginative conundrums as they joined in the game of detection. ... Modern readers may still read Green's work for plot and characterization, but as social history her fiction is even more significant." (Maida, p2)
Maida makes no positive claims about the quality of Green's writing. Green can plot a mystery with clues, and she writes about her own time. But that seems to be the extent of her literary merits. None of her novels are in print (they are however readily available as e-books, thanks to Kindle's extensive scanning programme of out-of-copyright fiction). Even in 1929, when Kathleen Woordward interviewed the 83-year-old Green for Bookman magazine (New York, Oct 1929, Vol 70, pp168-170),  she approached Green as a relic of a by-gone age: "I might have been in the company of any one of Barrie's lavender-perfumed ladies of undeniable refinement." Together the interviewer and Green lament "the decline of the detective story from an art to a process of mass-production." Woodward concludes: "We seem to have lost the attitude of high seriousness toward the mystery story which characterizes the work of Anna Katharine Green and her contemporaries."
This would suggest that by 1929, Green was seen as old-fashioned. In 1989, Patricia D. Maida confirms this assessment: "By the turn of the century ... her popularity had begun to wane. To a new generation, her style was heavy compared with that of rising authors like Mary Roberts Rinehart." (Maida, p30).  Later, Maida contrasts Green's cumbersome, formal and convoluted style with Rinehart's more colloquial and straight-forward prose (Maida, pp.53-4), and she concludes: "And this may well be the nub of the issue - that Green's language did not change with time, that even though she was still publishing in the 1920s, her fiction is written in the linguistic style of the nineteenth century." (Ibid.)
I would like to argue that the cause for the 'strange disappearance' of Anna Katharine Green from our bookshelves is because Green is neither fish nor fowl. She writes like a Victorian, with all the delicious melodrama, Gothic thrills and decorous turns of phrase employed by British sensation novelists. But her plots belong to the later golden age of detective fiction (between the World Wars).
Readers may have abandoned Green because her style is old-fashioned and awkwardly Victorian compared to other writers of similar detective stories (Agatha Christie most notably). Academic students of literature may have equally shied away from her, because she is hard to pigeon-hole. As a Victorian author she is dull, because she lacks much of the flamboyant and romantic plotting of sensation fiction. Her stories are focused on the puzzle of a single crime and calculated to tie up all the loose ends neatly. As a modern detective story writer she is also dull; her flowery language and melodramatic scenes appear needlessly exaggerated and impede the movement of the plot.
Back in 1878, The Leavenworth Case launched Green's career and became a best-seller. It remains her best known work. This success of a debut novel had to be followed up with something equally good to secure her future as a popular authoress. Green's second novel, published in 1879, was A Strange Disappearance. I wanted to find out if the language of sensation fiction, which Green employs, can turn a plot of a 'classic' detective story into a thrilling experience.