Green, Anna Katharine

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GREEN, Anna Katharine

Born 11 November 1846, Brooklyn, New York; died 11 April 1935, Buffalo, New York

Daughter of James W. and Catherine Whitney Green; married Charles Rohlfs, 1884; children: three

Anna Katharine Green was the youngest child of a lawyer father and a mother who died when Green was three. She received a B.A. from the Ripley Female Seminary in Poultney, Vermont, and began publishing poetry in Scribner's, Lippincott's, and other journals.

Although not the first American detective novel, The Leavenworth Case (1878) has been our most famous early mystery. Because of the decided success of The Leavenworth Case, Green gradually turned away from poetry writing. Only two of her 40 books are not mysteries: a volume of verse, The Defense of the Bride, and Other Poems (1882), and a verse drama, Risifi's Daughter (1887).

In 1884 Green married a tragedian turned furniture designer. They made their home in Buffalo, New York. Over the next eight years, Green produced three children and eight books. The last two decades of the century were her most fertile writing years. She produced 22 published volumes between 1880 and 1900 for an ever-widening audience. Green's popularity grew with each new published thriller. She soon became the grande dame of the American mystery novel; her global fame made her an effective lobbyist for international copyright.

The Leavenworth Case was, for many years, considered both the first American detective novel and the first detective novel by a woman, although it is neither. It is, however, a well-plotted, vastly entertaining murder puzzle of a type now classic. The rich Mr. Leavenworth is found murdered in his locked study. The suspects include his servants, employees, and two nieces. The sleuth is Ebenezer Gryce—a kind, rheumatic man and Green's most frequently used detective. The Leavenworth Case was very popular; the Pennsylvania Legislature even debated its authorship, consensus being that "the story was manifestly beyond a woman's powers."

Miss Hurd: An Enigma (1894) is a powerful mystery-melodrama in which the woman is the mystery to be solved. Vashti Hurd had wanted a "broad, free life." Instead, she was forced to marry the rich Mr. Murdoch. The murder puzzle that eventually develops is a subplot to the greater problem of Vashti's hatred for her husband and her need for freedom. Contemporary male critics found Miss Hurd an unsympathetic character. But feminist readers will find Vashti both sympathetic and heroic. Despite its rather sensational plot elements, the novel transcends its identity as a mystery novel and becomes a women's novel.

That Affair Next Door (1897) introduces Green's prototype spinster sleuth, Miss Amelia Butterworth. A sharp, independent woman, Miss Butterworth works both with and against the police, as personified by the now-elderly Mr. Gryce. Amelia's own, rather satirical, narration makes the book a delight. It is also one of Green's most challenging mysteries. Miss Butterworth would make two more appearances: a starring role in Lost Man's Lane (1898) and a cameo appearance in The Circular Study (1900).

The Golden Slipper, and Other Problems for Violet Strange (1915) is a short story collection featuring a professional woman detective. Violet Strange is worthy of respect both as an investigator specializing in women's "problems" and for her motivation in becoming an investigator—to support a dearly loved but disinherited older sister.

Green brought detective fiction to a more "cultured" reading public. She frankly and proudly wrote for a popular audience, but her books were published in hardbound editions by respected houses. No longer was the American mystery relegated to dime-novel status; prime ministers, presidents, and honored writers were avowed fans.

Green's long and prolific career spanned from the infancy of the genre to its golden age. But changing tastes within this fast-growing fiction formula dealt harshly with Green at the end of her career. Soon her poetic touches, her fondness for melodrama, her Victorian verbiage were judged worthless by the jaundiced eye of the interwar reading public. The genre became rigidly formularized, lean, and cynical. By the 1940s, Green's work was forgotten, or remembered only to ridicule.

Green is worthy of reexamination, both as a female forerunner in a largely male genre and as a writer with a real respect for women. Her female characters are strong, brave, and resolute against evil and largely male violence. There is a recurrent theme of sisterhood in her works among women who pool their energies for survival. Green gave us some of the first female sleuths, both amateur and professional. Unlike many 20th-century mystery writers who think of women only as victims or secondary characters, Green portrayed women as characters of primary importance who refused to be victimized.

Other Works:

A Strange Disappearance (1880). The Sword of Damocles (1881). Hand and Ring (1883). X Y Z: A Detective Story (1883). The Mill Mystery (1886). 7 to 12: A Detective Story (1887). Behind Closed Doors (1888). The Forsaken Inn (1890). A Matter of Millions (1890). The Old Stone House (1891). Cynthia Wakeham's Money (1892). Marked 'Personal' (1893). The Doctor, His Wife, and the Clock (1895). Dr. Izard (1895). Agatha Webb (1899). A Difficult Problem (1900). One of My Sons (1901). Three Women and a Mystery (1902). The Filigree Ball (1903). The Amethyst Box (1905). The House in the Mist (1905). The Millionaire Baby (1905). The Woman in the Alcove (1906). The Chief Legatee (1906). The Mayor's Wife (1907). The House of Whispering Pines (1910). Three Thousand Dollars (1910). Initials Only (1911). Dark Hollow (1914). To the Minute/Scarlet and Black (1916). The Mystery of the Hasty Arrow (1917). The Step on the Stair (1923).

The papers of Anna Katharine Green are housed in the Humanities Research Center of the University of Texas at Austin.


Harkins, E. F., and C. H. L. Johnson, Little Pilgrimages among the Women Who Have Written Famous Books (1901). Overton, G., The Women Who Make Our Novels (1928).

Reference works:

Detecting Women (1994). Encyclopedia Mysteriosa (1994). St. James Guide to Crime & Mystery Writers (1996).

Other references:

Bookman (1929). Reading and Collecting (1938). Writer (1888).