IN THE BEGINNING: THE MOTHERS OF DETECTION
"All goes to plan, both lying and confession, Down to the thrilling final chase, the kill."
--from "The Detective Story" by W.H. Auden
In the 1800s, murder was decidedly not a proper topic for well-bred ladies and gentlemen. When the young Victoria became Queen of England and Great Britain in 1837, propriety ascended the throne, and the Queen's rigid standards of behavior dominated not only her own subjects but the upstart citizens of England's former colonies as well. Even at the raucous frontier fringes of the fledgling United States, Victorianism mixed well with the still-strong strains of Yankee Puritanism.
Luckily, more and more people were learning to read, and with literacy came a growing demand for literature in its broadest sense. Although fine books were beyond the financial reach of most people, newspapers, magazines, and cheap storybooks thrived in a market that clamored for entertainment and quick thrills, and even the most high-minded authors (and their publishers) discovered that they could actually make money and gain fame by feeding popular tastes. It was in this environment that the detective story was born.
The first true literary detective was a French gentleman named C. Auguste Dupin--the invention of America's foremost tortured genius, Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849). With the publication of "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" in 1841, followed by "The Purloined Letter," "The Mystery of Marie Rogêt," "'Thou Art the Man,'" and "The Gold Bug," Poe carved out the fundamentals of the genre. Dorothy L. Sayers credited Poe with the introduction of "the formula of the eccentric and brilliant private detective whose doings are chronicled by an admiring and thick-headed friend." Dupin was, according to mystery writer andcritic Julian Symons, "what Poe often wished he could have been himself, an emotionless reasoning machine."
The brilliant-detective-and-dogged-sidekick formula was just one of the devices Poe innovated. From his fertile brain came the locked room murder, the innocent suspect, the most likely villain, the verbal clue, the cryptic clue, the in-plain-sight clue, the red herring, rudimentary ballistics evidence, armchair detection, fiction built on real-life facts--so many of what Dorothy Sayers called the "deceptions in the mystery-monger's bag of tricks ... ." Sayers went on to declare that, "take it all round, 'The Murders in the Rue Morgue' constitutes in itself almost a complete manual of detective theory and practice."
The times were changing dramatically in mid-nineteenth-century England and France and in the United States. The story of the development of detective fiction is a record of relatively rapid cross-pollination among these three countries. The first seed was germinated by Poe. Seedlings were then transported from shore to shore, hybridized, and when conditions were propitious, a true genre emerged.
Howard Haycraft in Murder for Pleasure connected the development of civilian police forces to the rise of democratic states and the realization "that only by methodical apprehension and just punishment of actual offenders could crime be adequately curbed and controlled." The advent of professional police departments came in the early to mid-1800s in England, France, and the United States. With the acceptance of official detection, interest in fictional detection could prosper.
A second factor was the Industrial Revolution, which made the mass production of reading material a viable commercial activity. As Colin Watson demonstrated in his study of the rise of popular crime fiction, Snobbery with Violence, authors like Sir Walter Scott, Charles Dickens, and William Thackeray, who understood popular tastes, came along "at just the right moment to reap the benefit of cheap printing, big-scale serialization ... and the direct marketing and wide distribution made possible by the growth of the railways."
A third critical factor was the spread of literacy. Throughout the nineteenth century, more and more of our foremothers and forefathers were learning to read, and what they wanted to read was sensationalism. Romanticism and, later, reaction against Victorian repression ignited a wildfire of lurid storytelling to satisfy the growing public demand. Even in polite British society, ladies and gentlemen wanted their excitement dished up hot and spicy--if not in their drawing rooms, at least between the covers of their books. Despite the condemnation of Victorian critics, nineteenth-century readers relished new tales of horror and sexualmetaphor, snatching up Mary Shelley's1 Frankenstein (1818) at the beginning of the century and Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897) at the end. In-between, they indulged in the soulful Gothic romances of the Brontë sisters, the stormy poetics of Byron and Shelley, the dark passions of Thomas Hardy.
The most successful writers of popular sensational stories were often women who spun feverish tales that revolved around dark secrets, dramatic revelations, and tragic consequences. What they delivered was truly sensational: overwrought tales of sex, betrayal, and death, usually justified by neatly high-minded conclusions. But readers knew that the sins along the road to the final moral--illicit love affairs, bastard children, hidden identities, bigamy, incest, and murder--were the real fun.
In 1860 and 1861, East Lynne, the first story by Mrs. Henry Wood (Ellen Price Wood, 1814-1887), appeared as a magazine serial and was later published as a complete novel. Although rejected by several cautious English publishers because of its controversial content, East Lynne eventually sold more than one million copies during Mrs. Wood's lifetime, making her a very wealthy woman. The story includes elements of detection (but no detective) and the legal prosecution of an old crime. Critics at the time were astounded by the author's presentation of courtroom procedures. The Saturday Review noted "an accuracy and method of legal knowledge which would do credit to many famous male novelists."2
An even more scandalous English novel, Lady Audley's Secret, was penned by young Mary Elizabeth Braddon. Wildly popular, this high melodrama was crammed with crime, from bigamy and blackmail to murder, leading to the unmasking of the charming Lady Audley's true nature. A lawyer's daughter, Miss Braddon (Mary Elizabeth Braddon Maxwell, 1837-1915) lived much closer to the edge of social acceptability than Mrs. Wood. By the time Lady Audley's Secret reached the British public in 1862, Miss Braddon had moved in with her publisher, John Maxwell. Because Maxwell's first wife was confined to a mental institution, the couple lived together without benefit of clergy until 1874, when they were at last able to marry. Together they had six children, two of whom became novelists, and Mary Elizabeth also raised her husband's five offspring.
Her writings, which reflected the influence of the French Realists,won the admiration of contemporaries including Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Henry James, and she enjoyed a long and successful writing career. Like Mrs. Wood, Mary Elizabeth Braddon never dealt seriously with detection, but toward the end of her career, she included increasingly complex crimes in her books, and her influence on later generations of detective writers was substantial.
American readers in the early nineteenth century were drawn to the moody mysteries of Hawthorne and Poe and the novels of James Fenimore Cooper. Americans were still very much a part of a frontier culture and favored down-to-earth settings for their thrillers rather than the Gothic castles of their English cousins. Even Mark Twain dabbled with certain facets of the crime story, and he was one of the earliest writers to understand the importance of fingerprint evidence. It was an American woman, however, who took inspiration from Poe's short stories and expanded detection to novel proportions. The first detective novel by a woman is now recognized to be The Dead Letter: An American Romance (1867), written by Mrs. Metta Victoria Fuller Victor (1831-1885) under the pen name Seeley Regester. Mrs. Victor's novel--first serialized in Beadle's Monthly magazine in 1866--included a gentleman police detective named Mr. Burton, and through hundreds of pages, the novel mixed fevered sensationalism with detection and wild trans-American chases. The resilient Mr. Burton does his darnedest to solve the mystery rationally, but in the end, he must turn to his clairvoyant daughter for a resolution: a detective, yes, but hardly Poe's reasoning machine. While the Pennsylvania-born Mrs. Victor was a prolific writer, she was never a very good one, and The Dead Letter is now regarded as little more than a quaint historical footnote.
It was to be another American woman who would finally master the legacy of Poe in long form, eliminate the cheap sensationalism of Victorian romance, and write the first internationally successful detective novel--and she would earn her title as "The Mother of the Detective Novel" almost a decade before the birth of the great Sherlock Holmes.
ANNA KATHARINE GREEN
THE LADY AND THE INSPECTOR
"Have you any idea of the disadvantnges under which a detective labours?"
--The Leavenworth Case
In 1853, Poe's concept of the reasoning detective had attracted no less a novelist than England's great Charles Dickens (1812-1870). His working-class Inspector Bucket of Bleak House has resonated through generations of police fiction, and Dickens's last, unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, is considered by many to have been a true detective story in the making. But with the possible exception of Edwin Drood, Dickens was never really interested in detection per se. Inspector Bucket was not a plodding crime-solver but a plot device, employed by Dickens to move his story forward with minimum complication.
It was Dickens's friend Wilkie Collins (1824-1889) who made the next real breakthrough in detective fiction after Poe. In 1868, Collins published The Moonstone. Although an earlier Collins mystery, The Woman in White, is more popular today, it was not true detection. The Moonstone was called by Dorothy L. Sayers "probably the very finest detective story ever written" and by poet T. S. Eliot the "first, the longest and the best"3 of the English detective novels. It is a cunningly plotted tale of crime and misdirection into which Collins introduced his own working-class policeman, Sergeant Cuff, the prototype of so many ordinary men of inordinate rationality who populate fictional police departments even today. Cuff is described by Julian Symons as "a master of the apparently irrelevant remark, the unexpected observation ..." that reveals his prodigious deductive powers. But Collins never followed up on The Moonstone and its detective, and although interest in the novelwas revived among writers in the 1920s, it never achieved broad public acceptance.
In the year of The Moonstone's, publication, a young American was scribbling away at her first novel, a secret project that took six years to complete. Anna Katharine Green's decision to become a professional writer of detective fiction was not so extraordinary as it might appear. She was already a boundary-breaker--a college graduate in a society that saw few rewards in the formal education of women. Born in 1846, Anna Catherine Green (she changed the spelling of her middle name when her first book was accepted for publication) was the product of hardy New England stock. Her father, James Wilson Green, was a lawyer who represented clients in the state and federal courts of Manhattan and raised his family across the river in Brooklyn Heights, New York. Anna was the fourth child born to James and his wife, Katherine Anne Whitney Green. Katherine gave birth to her fifth child in 1849, but neither she nor the infant survived. Left with four children to care for, James Green turned over the child-rearing duties to his elder daughter Sarah, whom Anna Katharine called "mother-sister."
In spite of his success as a lawyer, James Green had the soul of a wanderer and frequently moved his family from rented house to rented house, city to city. One of his many moves took the family to Buffalo, New York, where he met and married his second wife, "Mother Grace," a kind woman who encouraged her stepdaughter's education and burgeoning interest in writing.
As Anna Katharine was growing up, so was her country. Even with the Civil War looming, the United States was expanding economically and geographically, and a middle-class lawyer and his family were well positioned to benefit. The Greens were always devout Presbyterians, worshiping for many years at Brooklyn's Plymouth Church, whose firebrand pastor was Henry Ward Beecher, brother of Uncle Tom's Cabin author Harriet Beecher Stowe. It was probably this combination of factors--the family's relative affluence, their religion, and the influence of the powerful teachings of Henry Ward Beecher, a fervent supporter of women's rights--that prompted the extraordinary decision to send Anna Katharine to college. In 1863, she entered Ripley College in Poultney, Vermont, one of a gallant handful of women's institutions of higher education. At Ripley, Anna Katharine presided over the Washington Irving Association, made the acquaintance of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and determined to become a poet. She received her bachelor's degree in 1866 and returned to the family home--now back in Brooklyn Heights and filled to the rafters with brothers, sisters-in-law, and sundry extended family members.
Anna Katharine sent several of her poems to Emerson in 1868, buthis response was not encouraging. She turned from writing poetry to a novel. Believing that her father would not approve of fiction, she kept her work secret from all but her stepmother until The Leavenworth Case was completed. In fact, James was enthusiastic about his daughter's first novel, perhaps because the story included extensive legal and courtroom knowledge that had to have been learned from him. Through a friend, James arranged for Anna Katharine to meet publisher George Putnam, a contact that proved highly profitable for both.
Published by Putnam in 1878, The Leavenworth Case: A Lawyer's Story was an immediate success at home and overseas. In England, Anna Katharine was praised in print by Wilkie Collins: "Her powers of invention are so remarkable--she has so much imagination and so much belief (a most important qualification for our art) in what she says ... ."4 In France, her work was promoted by Émile Gaboriau, and its international success opened the world of literary eminence to Anna Katharine. The novel eventually sold more than a million copies, became required reading at the Yale Law School, and was said to be a favorite of British prime minister Stanley Baldwin. In 1894, Anna Katharine was visited at her home by her friend and frequent correspondent Arthur Conan Doyle, who had brought Sherlock Holmes to the reading public seven years earlier.
In The Leavenworth Case, Anna Katharine created her version of the Bucket-Cuff working-class cop, Inspector Ebenezer Gryce of the New York Police. As the story opens, a wealthy merchant is found dead in the library of his home, and suspicion falls on two lovely sisters before Inspector Gryce unravels the mystery. The plot itself is clever and complex, but just as important were the new elements that Anna Katharine introduced into detective writing: the accurately observed coroner's inquest, expert testimony, scientific ballistics evidence, a schematic drawing of the crime scene, a reconstructed letter, and the first suspicious butler. In fact, according to historian Alma E. Murch, "in her work we can discern for the first time, in its entirety, the pattern that became characteristic of most English detective novels written during the following fifty years."
The success of The Leavenworth Case was the beginning of a long and rewarding career. Personal success also awaited Anna Katharine when she was introduced to a young actor named Charles Rholfs by their church pastor. Charles was twenty-nine, and Anna Katharine was thirty-seven. Naturally, her father had doubts about Charles's prospects, but thestruggling actor quickly agreed to give up the stage for a more settled career. He entered the Cooper Union in New York, studying the design and crafting of iron stoves, and with his future apparently on track, he and Anna Katharine were married in November 1884. Charles soon switched from iron stoves to furniture design. He also continued to act, and in 1891 he appeared in the successful stage version of The Leavenworth Case. Furniture, however, proved to be his real forte, and his unique designs gained international recognition. His works have since been displayed internationally and are included in the collections of Princeton University and the Metropolitan Museum of New York.
The couple ultimately moved to Buffalo, the city Anna Katharine remembered so happily from her childhood. The girl who had known so much shifting and change now insisted on a home of her own and the settled lifestyle of a middle-class matron. The Rholfses and their three children--Rosamund, Sterling, and Roland--lived in a house designed and furnished by Charles. Sadly, Anna Katharine outlived two of her children: Sterling, a pilot, was killed in a mysterious air crash in Toluca, Mexico, in 1928, and Rosamund died in 1930. Roland, also an aviator, was an associate of the Wright brothers and later piloted for Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Though none of her subsequent books ever equaled the immense popularity of The Leavenworth Case, Anna Katharine was always able to support her family in comfort with her writing. But by 1923, when her last book, The Step on the Stair, was published, her somewhat dated style and Victorian mannerisms had already been overtaken by a new generation of crime writers--most of whom gladly acknowledged their debts to Anna Katharine Green. She died on April 11, 1935, at her home in Buffalo ... a genuine pioneer.
There is a bit of Inspector Gryce in most of the fictional professional detectives that have followed. He was the first genuine series detective, featured in eleven novels and two short story collections, and solved his cases with hard investigative dedication. More than any of its predecessors, The Leavenworth Case set the standard for professional police work in detective fiction.
Twenty years after Inspector Gryce's first case, Anna Katharine Green created another detective convention by teaming the indomitable Gryce with a new character who was to inspire one of the most popular breeds of sleuth: the elderly spinster snoop. Miss Amelia Butterworth of Gramercy Park appeared first in That Affair Next Door (1897), and returned for Lost Man's Lane (1898) and The Circular Study (1900). Miss Butterworth, the amateur, is not a distaff Dr. Watson. There's nothing of the "stooge" (as Hercule Poirot once characterized his friend Captain Hastings) about her, and she is much respected by the good Gryce forher deductive and intuitive skills. In The Circular Study, the octogenarian inspector is constantly confounded by the intellectual powers of Miss Butterworth: "He was not often caught napping, but this woman exercised a species of fascination upon him at times, and it rather amused than offended him, when he was obliged to acknowledge himself defeated."
In the Gryce-Butterworth pairing, Anna Katharine found a workable solution for one of the most vexing problems of early detective fiction--the class difference. Police around the turn of the century were common folk. No matter how brilliant, the policeman was invariably a product of the working class and realistically subservient to the upper class--the wealthy in America and the titled in Britain. Yet detective stories about crimes committed by ordinary people (the natural milieu of most real-life police investigations) were not the stuff of popular and profitable fiction. Readers didn't want the pedestrian crimes and criminals that were part of their own everyday lives; they wanted to be privy to the excesses committed at the top of the social heap. They wanted entry to the ballrooms and boudoirs of the rich and powerful--lofty realms from which the average reader and policeman were excluded. By teaming Inspector Gryce with the well-bred and well-off Miss Butterworth, Anna Katharine provided her working-class detective with a polite introduction to the upper crust. Miss Butterworth knows how the wealthy think and behave. She understands high society and can guide the policeman into and through its arcane complexities.
(The class problem continued to plague detective writers, especially the English, until after World War Two, when the old class barriers began to crumble. Until then, the two most frequent approaches were to follow Anna Katharine Green's lead and pair an aristocratic amateur with a working cop, as Dorothy Sayers did with Lord Peter Wimsey and Detective-Inspector Parker of Scotland Yard, or to create an aristocrat who was also a law officer, such as Ngaio Marsh's hero, Roderick Alleyn. Agatha Christie, original as usual, overcame the class differential by making her most famous detective an outsider. A retired Belgian policeman, Hercule Poirot easily navigated between high and low society because, as his creator well understood, the British were simply too smug to care about his social status. When, in Murder on the Orient Express, the great detective is snubbed by a British Army officer, "Poirot reading the English mind correctly, knew that [Colonel Arbuthnot] had said to himself: 'Only some damned foreigner.'")
In addition to shaping the structure of the modern detective novel, Anna Katharine Green also gave it a uniquely American flavor. Unlike so many American writers at the time, who blithely copied class, character, and locations from the English, Anna Katharine wrote about thedistinctly American people, places, and styles of life that she observed. Her court scenes are played out according to American legal rules. Society is separated by wealth rather than birth, and upper-class money is new and raw. Her New York has the gritty feel of a city on the grow, and there are no lords and ladies in her country villages. There is brashness in her characters, even the rigid Miss Butterworth, for who else in the 1890s but a snobbish American old maid would dare to attach herself to a police investigation for no higher motive than female curiosity?
"[Holmes] used to make merry over the cleverness of women ... ."
--Dr. John Watson about Sherlock Holmes, "A Scandal in Bohemia"
In the mid-1880s, Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930), a young English physician who was having a difficult time attracting enough patients to make a living, used his idle hours to jot down ideas for a story about a detective named Sherrinford Holmes and his London housemate, Ormond Sacker. Sherrinford became Sherlock, and Sacker was transformed into Dr. John H. Watson. The rights to the finished story, which Doyle called A Study in Scarlet, were sold for a paltry £25, and the world's greatest detective made his first public appearance in the 1887 edition of Beeton's Christmas Annual--rousing little interest in his home country. It was the American editor of Lippincott's Magazine who boosted Doyle's career, contracting to publish The Sign of Four in 1890.
What Doyle achieved with his Sherlock Holmes stories was not a major literary revolution, even though he did impose the order of logic on the detective genre more rigorously than any writer to date. Doyle's everlasting contribution was the creation of a character so vivid that he single-handedly dragged detective fiction out of literary left field and toward the respectable mainstream. There's no way to downplay the impact of Holmes on all detective fiction. He was, and remains, the model of the totally rational, scientific problem-solver. Steeped in romance, he is the solitary hero, plagued by personal devils but dedicated to his quest for truth--an icon, the image of detection.
Arthur Conan Doyle was only the most successful detective writer of his time. Others were plowing the same field, and in some cases turning up new ideas. Women writers of popular fiction were enough of an oddity in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that they often adopted male pen names to encourage acceptance of their material for publication. Others simply published anonymously, abandoning all chance for recognition. Yet the fact remains that women were very much there from the beginning. Outside of academic circles, writerslike Anna Katharine Green are hardly ever mentioned anymore. When their works do resurface, they are usually collected as Victoriana--nostalgic relics of a long-dead era. Even Arthur Conan Doyle is probably not so much read today as known through film and television versions of his Sherlock Holmes stories. But readers of contemporary crime fiction owe this turn-of-the-century generation more than a casual glance.
England's L. T. Meade (Elizabeth Thomasina Meade Smith, 1854-1914), after a long career writing children's stories and books for young people, collaborated in 1894 with "Dr. Clifford Halifax" to produce a series of stories generally believed to be England's earliest medical mysteries. Collaborating again, with "Robert Eustace" (a pseudonym of Dr. Eustace Robert Barton, who later assisted Dorothy Sayers), Meade introduced the first female master criminal in stories collected as The Brotherhood of the Seven Kings. Again with "Robert Eustace," she created the evil murderess Madame Sara in The Sorceress of the Strand (1903). The most memorable detective character imagined by Meade and "Robert Eustace" was Florence Cusack, who appeared in four stories published in The Harmsworth Magazine between 1899 and 1900. Accompanied by her friend Dr. Lonsdale, Miss Cusack, a handsome young woman of wealth and curious independence, briskly solves perplexing crimes with unerring common sense. She is described as "a power in the police courts, and highly respected by every detective in Scotland Yard"--a remarkable feat considering the status of women at the time.
Catherine Louisa (C.L.) Pirkis (18??-1910) added another commonsense female crime-solver to the lexicon in the 1890s. Her last short story collection, published in 1894, was The Experiences of Loveday Brooke, Lady Detective, featuring a poor, but determined, woman who deploys her considerable powers of observation ("I start on my work without theory of any sort--in fact, I may say, with my mind a perfect blank") in the service of a London detective agency.
A more influential female detective writer was Emmuska Magdalena Rosalia Maria Josefa Barbara Orczy Barstow--Baroness Orczy (1865-1947) --a native of Hungary who immigrated to England as a girl. Her first major success, the 1905 play The Scarlet Pimpernel, was a joint venture with her husband. Emmuska transformed the play into an equally popular series of Pimpernel books, but the adventurous Sir Percy Blakeney--"the demn'd elusive" Pimpernel--was not her only memorable character.
Inspired by the stories of Arthur Conan Doyle, Emmuska nevertheless determined to create a detective wholly unlike Sherlock Holmes, and she developed the grandfather of all armchair detectives, The Old Man in the Corner. His name is never known. He inhabits a table at the rear of an ABC luncheonette in London's Norfolk Street, drinkingmilk, eating cheesecake, and unfolding his ingenious solutions to seemingly insoluble crimes--all for the benefit of an amazed audience of one, a young newspaper reporter named Polly Burton:
Polly thought to herself that she had never seen anyone so pale, so thin, with such funny light-colored hair, brushed very smoothly across the top of a very obviously bald crown. He looked so timid and nervous as he fidgeted incessantly with a piece of string; his long, lean, and trembling fingers tying and untying it into knots of wonderful and complicated proportions.
--"The Fenchurch Street Mystery"
The Old Man first brings together all the frayed ends of a mystery, then neatly unties the complexities, just as he undoes the knots in his ever-present piece of string. His unmitigated self-regard and his arrogant disdain for time-wasting and unimaginative police officials (later to be hallmark traits of fiction's most famous sedentary detective, Nero Wolfe) are boundless. The Old Man starred in dozens of short stories collected in The Case of Miss Elliot (1905), The Old Man in the Corner (1909), and Unravelled Knots (1925). The stories themselves may seem stilted to today's readers, but many of Baroness Orczy's conceits still have real power. As Julian Symons has noted, "The misanthropic Old Man is concerned only with demonstrating his own cleverness ... . and it is a peculiarity of the stories that in many of them the criminal goes free." This witty, almost malevolent disregard for the acceptable rules of conduct and social order in the Old Man stories appears much later in the novels of writers like Patricia Highsmith and Ruth Rendell. In fact, the idea for switched-therefore-motiveless murders that ensured the popularity of Highsmith's 1950 debut novel, Strangers on a Train (subsequently filmed by Alfred Hitchcock), was first worked out in an Old Man case.
The Old Man was not the only detective created by the baroness, but he was by far the most successful. In 1910, Emmuska published Lady Molly of Scotland Yard, the adventures of the upper-class head of Scotland Yard's fictitious Female Department. Lady Molly has all the arrogance of the Old Man (hers born of social rather than intellectual snobbery), but lacks the hard-edged humor. Nor is the smarmy character of the lawyer-detective Patrick Mulligan in Skin o' My Tooth (1928) appealing.
There are many more names that can be included among the founding Mothers of Detection ... women like Natalie Sumner Lincoln (1872-1935), a Washington, D. C.--born novelist who integrated politics with murder in The Trevor Case (1912) and other detective stories ... England's Mrs. Belloc Lowndes (Marie Adelaide Belloc Lowndes, 1868-1947), sister of Hilaire Belloc and author of a number of popular,fact-based mysteries including The Lodger (1915), which revived the horror of Jack the Ripper ... Isabel Egenton Ostrander (1885-1924), who wrote under pen names including Robert Orr Chipperfield and was one of the first to adopt the murderer's point of view in a detective story ... Carolyn Wells (Mrs. Hadwin Houghton, 18??-1942), who penned more than sixty detective books and wrote the influential The Technique of the Mystery Story (1913), the first how-to-write guide for fledgling mystery-makers.
In 1841, Edgar Allan Poe wrote the blueprint for the detective story. Over the next seventy years, writers of varying talents assembled the building materials and dug the foundations. By the time of the First World War, the underpinnings of modern detective fiction had been firmly laid, and on both sides of the Atlantic, the mystery-reading public was ready for the structure to go up.
THE MOTHERS OF DETECTION
"'Mysteries!' he commented. 'There is no such thing as a mystery in connection with any crime, provided intelligence is brought to bear upon its investigation.'"
--The Old Man in the Corner
The following bibliography includes the detective/mystery novels and story collections of the best-known Mothers of Detection: Anna Katharine Green and Baroness Orczy. Recommended titles are noted with an asterisk. Books are listed chronologically by first publication title; alternate titles are noted. Featured detectives appear in ( ). US = United States. GB = Great Britain.
ANNA KATHARINE GREEN 1846-1935 American (born: Brooklyn, New York)
EMMUSKA, BARONESS OKCZY 1865-1947 British (born: Hungary)
QUICK, CALL A BOBBY!
Bobbies are a fixture in British detective fiction. Lean and taciturn males and females in blue, they are generally the first officials at the scene, doing the hard work of evidence gathering, witness questioning, and crime scene protecting.
Ironically, the British police force traces its origin to a novelist, Henry Fielding, author of Tom Jones. In 1748, Fielding was made a magistrate in the Bow Street section of London, charged with adjudicating common criminal cases. But who would bring the miscreants to court? In Fielding's time, there was no organized force, so the magistrate recruited six volunteer "thief-takers" to pursue and apprehend petty thieves and troublemakers. These thief-takers soon became known as the Bow Street Runners, and the good citizens of London began to think that a regular force of civilian lawmen might be a good idea.
The Bow Street Runners--who received irregular compensation from the rewards, or "blood money," offered by crime victims--continued to police the streets until 1829. In that year Sir Robert Peel (1788-1850), the Home Secretary, established the Metropolitan Police of London. Peel had become a Member of Parliament in 1809. Three years later, he was appointed Secretary of Ireland, where one of his accomplishments was the establishment of the Irish Constabulary. In 1825, Peel undertook the monumental task of reforming England's entire criminal law system, one result of which was the founding of the Metropolitan Police.
Neither public nor politicians were initially thrilled with the idea; many feared that a government-supported police force would trample personal liberties and act as repressors for the powerful. Peel took every care to disassociate his police force from the military. The distinctive uniform of today's London bobby evolved from Peel's decision to dress the force in simple blue tailcoats and black top hats. First called "Blue Lobsters" by London's wary citizens, the police proved their worth by midcentury and were dubbed "bobbies"--a term of affection and gratitude to their founder, Sir "Bobby" Peel. (In Ireland, police constables are still referred to as "Peelers.")
The first home of Peel's Metropolitan Police was an office on Whitehall Place that backed onto an alley called Scotland Yard. Wherever the offices have been located--today the police are headquartered on Victoria Street--the building is always called Scotland Yard. Although the British Home Secretary, a Cabinet minister, is responsible for the internal law and order of the nation, there is no British national police force akin to the FBI. Scotland Yard, now New Scotland Yard, remains home to the Metropolitan Police of London, who can, when requested, assist the country's more than fifty regional forces. Hence the frequent command in English detective novels to "call in the Yard!"
A STRANGE ENCOUNTER: THE GENESIS OF THE FEMALE DETECTIVE
Female crime-busters emerged fairly early in the history of the detective story, created by male and female writers alike. The first was probably England's Mrs. Paschal, who appeared in W.S. Hayward's The Revelations of a Lady Detective in 1861, followed in 1864 by Andrew Forester, Jr.'s, unnamed "Female Detective." The problem for these early writers was to establish some remotely plausible reason for their lady sleuths to be in the business at all. There were several routes. Hayward's Mrs. Paschal finds herself widowed and poor, with only her mental resources to fall back on, and investigation becomes a legitimate avenue out of genteel poverty. Dorcas Dene solved mysteries in two volumes (1897-1898) by London journalist George R. Sims. A "brave and yet womanly" former actress, Dene takes up investigation "when her artist husband [is] stricken with blindness ... ." Financial necessity again, and love for her man, made Dorcus Dene's sleuthing acceptable.
Then there was the chance encounter. Anna Katharine Green's Miss Butterworth just happens to be at the fringes of a murder case when she meets Inspector Gryce of the New York police, and it is natural that this contact should develop into a relationship (platonic, of course). There was also the desire to see justice done, almost always particularized for female detectives. Lady Molly, for example, gets into police work in order to prove the innocence of her husband, who languishes in prison until the end of Baroness Emmuska Orczy's 1910 book, Lady Molly of Scotland Yard. The baroness was not stymied by the fact that the real Yard had no women officers; she simply invented a Female Department for Lady Molly's convenience.
These early lady detectives were no Sherlocks. They might be bright, but the idea that they could solve crimes through sheer logic or scientific investigation was, as yet, unthinkable. Their tools were intimateknowledge of domestic interests, feminine intuition, and old-fashioned common sense. As often as not, they stumbled into solutions, and the crimes they uncovered were frequently felonious (theft, blackmail, kidnapping) but rarely gruesome or fatal.
But by the time Anna Katharine Green introduced Violet Strange in The Golden Slipper and Other Problems (1915), the status of women was changing. As the twentieth century reached its teens, female investigators could be young and single, where their predecessors had been mostly middle-aged spinsters, widows, or married women. They could be motivated by the mental and moral challenges of investigation. They worked at what they wanted to do and were less likely to retire at the wedding altar. Part socialite, part suffragette, Violet Strange is endowed with intelligence, a strong will, and a well-developed sense of social justice--plus the courage to venture where no fictional women had gone before.
WOMEN OF MYSTERY. Copyright © 2000 by Martha Hailey DuBose. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.