A young girl has a secret life as a detective. Is it Veronica Mars, or Nancy Drew? Nope. An intrusive spinster solves crimes, and a middle-aged man hires mysterious help with names like Q for Query and Fobbs, because he’s a good at watching people, to get his murderer. Thinking of Miss Marple, Poirot, Columbo, or even Sherlock Holmes himself? Wrong again.
Anna Katharine Green may have faded into obscurity, but she was a pioneer. She created the first girl-detective, Violet Strange, the spinster detective, Amelia Butterworth; in fact, she created the first detective series. Her Ebenezer Gryce predates Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes by nine years. In the very first of forty novels, The Leavenworth Case, published in 1878, she would include the requisite drawings and diagrams that have become standard in puzzle-pieces whodunits. Many of the clichés associated with murder mysteries originated with Green, although they weren’t shopworn when she wrote them. Forgotten are her unique touches. While her detectives may explain their reasoning in the last scene, her Ebenezer Gryce, for example, is unlike Poe’s Dupin, Dickens’s Inspector Bucket, or Wilkie Collins’s Sergeant Cuff in that he doesn’t intimidate other characters. He is overweight and pleasant. If the arrogant Holmes had the somewhat dim Watson for a companion, then Gryce has Everett Raymond, but not for long, and for the duration of the Leavenworth Affair he is more than a foil to Gryce; he argues his own line of reasoning. Her plotting is modern and fast, although some of her dialog is dated, but not terribly so, when compared to most nineteenth-century works. Agatha Christie, who had read Leavenworth as a child, acknowledged Green. The familiar wealthy family and house seen in Christie novels are from Green’s works.
Green’s own life was quite remarkable. Her father, a lawyer, encouraged her intellect. Although the family moved often because of her father’s profession, she had homes here and there throughout New York, where she set her future novels. James Green sent his daughter to Ripley Female College, now Green Mountain College, in Vermont at a time when few women attended college, and fewer colleges accepted them. Eavesdropping on his conversations over the years, she had taught herself legal principles and process that would animate her novels. Her mother died in a cholera epidemic, but her father’s new wife encouraged her writing. When Anna did not do well with poetry – stung by criticism from her teacher, Ralph Waldo Emerson — her stepmother encouraged Anna to try fiction. Wilkie Collins at the time had a hit, and Anna thought that she would give it a try. Armed with six years of notes that she had written in secret, she produced a first draft of Leavenworth. Her father offered edits, asked her if he could have one of his judge friends read it, and when the judge ruled in favor of the novel, her father brought the manuscript to Putnam. Anna did not use a pseudonym, unlike two earlier detective novelists: Metta Victoria Fuller and Mary Fortune. The Leavenworth Case met with resounding success and Anna Katherine Green began a nearly half-century career as a novelist before she died in 1935 at the age of eighty-eight. Wilkie Collins praised her. Arthur Conan Doyle wanted to meet her when he came to America. Yale Law School used her first novel as a case study on circumstantial evidence.
Her marriage is an interesting story. Already established, she met a young actor named Charles Rohlfs. Her choice in a husband was somewhat scandalous. Seven years her junior, he was the son of German immigrants and an actor. Although he performed in productions of Shakespeare and Molière and in a stage version of Leavenworth, his acting career floundered. She supported him until he expressed his creative side in designing furniture and stoves. “Rohlf style” furniture pieces are collectibles and fetch high prices at auctions.
More than a century later many of Anna Katharine Green’s works are in public domain, available for free to electronic readers. She is Wednesday’s Woman and worth a resurgence in public interest.