Saturday, 28 September 2013

The Neglected Mother of Detective Fiction

Everyone's heard of Edgar Allan Poe, the so-called father of American mystery fiction. Everyone is familiar with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his creation Sherlock Holmes, arguably the most well-known detective in literature. Of course we all know who Agatha Christie is, so why is the author Anna Katharine Green, who was a major influence on both Doyle and Christie's writing, so unknown today?

Green is the author of The Leavenworth Case, which was the first detective novel ever written (Poe's The Murders in the Rue Morgue was the first to have a detective hero) TLC was published in 1878, nine years before Sherlock Holmes appeared on the literary scene. In her books Green established many of the genre conventions that are still used to this day. At the time her book was a bestseller. Critics predictably claimed that a novel which displayed such a detailed knowledge of the criminal system couldn't possibly have been written by a woman. Unlike Poe, Doyle and Christie's books, TLC has slipped into obscurity, along with the many other novels she wrote.

Green was a prolific writer, penning a book a year for five decades, spanning two centuries. Many of these books are now available for free on Amazon, which is how I discovered this badly neglected author. I downloaded a copy of The House of Whispering Pines, and from the opening page I knew I was in the hands of a master storyteller. When I did a bit of research on the author I was truly shocked that I'd never even heard of this woman who has had such a major impact on mystery and detective fiction. So what is the reason for this neglect?

Some reviewers have claimed that her books are too wordy and old-fashioned for contemporary audiences. I disagree with this argument. Other classics from the same era which are much harder to read are still enjoyed by many. My feeling is that because of her obscurity Green just hasn't reached the audience that will appreciate her work. There are several editions of The Leavenworth Case on Amazon and the highest number of ratings for any edition is seventeen. All of her other books have only a handful of reviews. Goodreads is  little better, where reviews number in the hundreds for TLC and two other books have over one hundred ratings, but this is a mere drop in the ocean compared with Poe's The Murders in the Rue Morgue which has nearly five thousand ratings for one edition. Most of Green's books on Goodreads have less than fifty reviews.

There's something very wrong with this picture and I don't think it's just a coincidence that Green, a woman who wrote the first fully-fledged detective novel ever, has conveniently been erased from literary history. Sure Agatha Christie was, and still is,  an extremely popular female mystery writer, but it's one thing to be a great author in a particular genre, and another thing to actually play a key role in establishing that genre.

Have you heard of Anna Katharine Green? I'm willing to bet that most people reading this haven't. To help rectify this situation, I urge you to go to her Amazon page and download some of her books. They're free so you've got nothing to lose. And spread the word about this author who deserves a lot more recognition than she's received. I can't put it any better than Michael Mallory who wrote in his article The Mother of American Mystery: "If any American writer is due for a major rediscovery, even if only on the basis of historical importance, it is Anna Katharine Green. While largely forgotten today, her novels paved the way for…well, for just about everybody working in the mystery genre." I for one am thrilled to have discovered this forgotten author with a very large body of work to immerse myself in.

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