Monday, April 8, 2013

Try This on for Size: The Golden Slipper and Other Problems for Violet Strange (1915), Anna Katharine Green

"Girl detective" Violet Strange has enjoyed a revival of late.  Strange's creator, the prolific American mystery novelist Anna Katharine Green (1846-1935), has been getting more attention too, not only for Violet Strange, but for her characters Amelia Butterworth, prototype of the "nosy spinster" sleuth once so popular in detective fiction, and Ebenezer Gryce, the detective in Green's landmark mystery novel The Leavenworth Case (1878) and numerous other tales.

Today a common view seems to be that Anna Katharine Green was long unfairly neglected and that the blame for this neglect rests with sexist male critics who unjustly denigrated her work.

Admittedly it does seem to have been the view during the Golden Age of detective fiction that Green had plotting ingenuity but also a narrative style hobbled by outmoded Victorian literary conventions that she never outgrew.  Golden Age critics often damned Green's writing as stilted and melodramatic.

I am not sure, however,  that one can so easily classify this attitude as sexist.  Critics like Howard Haycraft and T. S. Eliot (a great detective fiction fan), admittedly found fault with Green's writing style, but they also greatly admired Agatha Christie, for example.  If they simply were sexists, why did they praise Christie?

Anna Katharine Green
I think what led to Anna Katharine Green's comparative neglect was not sexism but rather a shift of aesthetic standards in the mystery fiction genre.

Today attitudes about Green are different, due not only to the rise of feminist literary scholarship, but to a renewed embrace of the Victorian sensation novel, which was a great influence on Green.

What some readers found prolix and hokey in the 1920s and 1930s, many readers today find rich and emotionally satisfying.

Modern readers also are much more accustomed to reading lengthy crime novels.

Agatha Christie, the greatest representative of Golden Age detective fiction, once expressed the view that 50,000 words was the ideal length for a detective novel.Yet many readers today prefer that crime novels be twice that length (or more).

Anna Katharine Green novels can more than oblige modern readers in this regard.  According to Green's obituary in the New York Times, The Leavenworth Case originally ran to 186,000 words.  Her publishers wanted her to cut the manuscript to 80,000. They and the author compromised at a word count of 142,000--nearly three times what Christie in the twentieth century considered the ideal detective novel length.

Moreover, while Christie found "love interest a terrible bore in detective stories," many readers today emphatically do not.  From what I've seen of her books, Anna Katharine Green gives lovers of love interest something to love.*

*(It's often claimed today that The Leavenworth Case influenced Agatha Christie.  I certainly think it did her first detective novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles; yet, on the other hand, Christie's narratives were vastly more streamlined and purely functional than Green's)

I tend to side more with Haycraft, Eliot and Christie on detective fiction aesthetics, I must admit.  I think The Leavenworth Case, for example, is undermined by what I consider the over-the-top emotional histrionics displayed by several of the characters.  Additionally, I do not like the extended flashback sections in some of the Green novels I have read.

I thought, however, that I would try a short story collection by Green, The Golden Slipper, her Violet Strange story cycle.  I found that the short story length promoted greater brevity in Green's writing style--a good thing to my mind!

Violet Strange, as many people probably already know, is Green's dimpled darling of a debutante detective (Green herself continually emphasizes those darling dimples), a young woman with a rich financier father who secretly has taken up investigative work (how she keeps this a secret for so long, considering that she cracks cases for some of the most prominent people in northeastern society, I don't quite see).

Why Violet Strange, a young woman of eminent social position, has taken up professional detection on the sly is one of the great mysteries of The Golden Slipper.  The answer to this question is not divulged to readers until the final story of the nine that are gathered in this collection.  The revelation is customarily spoiled by people who write about Violet Strange in modern short story collections, but I will keep mum about it here.

Now I will discuss each story in turn.

"The Golden Slipper"

"I find that women and only women are involved, and that these women are not only young but one and all of the highest society.  Is it a man's work to go to the bottom of a combination like this?  No.  Sex against sex, and, if possible, youth against youth.  Happily, I know such a person--a girl of gifts and extraordinarily well placed for the purpose.  Why she uses her talents in this direction--why, with means enough to play the part natural to her as a successful debutante, she consents to occupy herself with social and other mysteries, you must ask her, not me...."

Mr. Driscoll again raised his opera glass [studying Violet Strange in her opera box].

"But it's such a comedy face," he commented.  "It's hard to associate intellectuality with such quaintness of expression."

Here begins the chronicle of the detections of Violet Strange.  In this first account, Strange is tasked with learning which one of a particular crowd of privileged young debutantes is a kleptomaniac (that word is not used, but it is what is meant).

Strange does so, but through a ploy, not real detection.  It's an entertaining introduction to Violet Strange, but withal a trifle.  Strange goes on, however, to bigger things.

"The Second Bullet"

Anna Katharine Green (c.1880)
"I'm sorry," she protested, "but it's quite out of my province.  I'm too young to meddle with so serious a matter."

"Not when you can save a bereaved woman the only possible compensation left her by untoward fate?"

In this case Violet Strange tries to prove a supposed suicide is murder, so that the dead man's widow, left not only emotionally but financially bereft by the violent death of her husband*, can collect on his insurance policy.

*(horrifically, the couple's baby is found dead with his father, having been strangled, it is found, by the weight of his father's dead arm)

Out of what once used to be called girlish delicacy, Strange initially balks at taking such a tragic case of violent death, despite her (never named) employer's urging.  "The man shot himself," she temporizes.  "He was a speculator, and probably had good reason for his act."

Eventually, however, Strange yields and agrees to see the dead man's widow, Mrs. Hammond.  The latter lady cannot believe her eyes when she meets the mere slip of a girl assigned to her case:

"But you are so young and so--so--"

"So inexperienced you would say and so evidently a member of what New Yorkers call 'society.'  Do not let that trouble you.  My inexperience is not likely to last long and my social pleasures are more apt to add to my efficiency then to detract from it."

Mrs. Hammond's husband was found shot dead in the couple's bedroom.

His own gun, with one chamber discharged, was found with him.  But evidently another shot was fired in the room from some other source, because there also is a bullet hole in the bedroom mirror.  Yet a second bullet cannot be discovered.

Mrs. Hammond contends that her husband must have been shot from the bedroom window by another person and that the shot from her husband's gun went not into his own body but rather into the mirror; yet since this alleged second bullet cannot be found, her theory is rejected and a verdict of suicide is rendered.

Violet disproves the suicide theory by finding the second bullet.  The solution to this problem that Green supplies is as far as I know completely original.  It's quite ingenious.

"An Intangible Clue"

Here Violet Strange is called upon to solve the case of the savage murder of a decayed gentlewoman, living alone in her old family mansion.

The fastidious Miss Strange again protests to her employer against taking this sort of case:

"When, for reasons I have never thought myself called upon to explain, I consented to help you a little now and then with some matter where a woman's tact and knowledge of the social world might tell without offence to herself or others, I never thought it would be necessary for me to state that temptation must stop with such cases, or that I should not be asked to touch the sordid or the bloody.  But it seems I was mistaken, and that I must stoop to be explicit.  The woman who was killed on Tuesday might have interested me greatly as an embroiderer [the victim had taken on embroidery work as a means of making money], but as a victim, not at all.  What do you see in me, or miss in me, that you should drag me into an atmosphere of low-down crime?"

"Nothing, Miss Strange.  You are by nature, as well as by breeding, very far removed from everything of the kind.  But you will allow me to suggest that no crime is low-down which makes imperative demand upon the intellect and intuitive sense of its investigator.  Only the most delicate touch can feel and hold the thread I've just spoken of, and you have the most delicate touch I know."

"Do not attempt to flatter me.  I have no fancy for handling befouled spider webs."

Despite this contention, Strange's employer manages to involve her in the case, which she solves through the penetrating analysis of physical clues left on the scene of the crime.  "My opinion is a girl's opinion," she modestly tells her employer when reporting her discoveries, "but such as it is you have the right to have it."

Her employer is impressed: "Allow me, I pray, to kiss your hand.  It is a liberty I have never taken, but one which would greatly relieve my present stress of feeling." (note: today Violet Strange might have a sexual harassment case here! "What did you mean, sir, when you asked Miss Strange to relieve your 'present stress of feeling?'")

"The Grotto Spectre"

This case involves the death of a wicked, designing wife, who calculatedly married a young heir for his money and led him into a dissolute lifestyle of drinking and gambling (pronounces the disapproving author, "she besieged him with coaxing ways and bewitching graces"). The dead woman supposedly died naturally from a heart ailment, but her son comes to believe that she may have been murdered--and by his own father!

This is an entertaining story, but Violet Strange does very little detecting in it.  She does, however, engineer the means by which truth is revealed.  Also the dead woman's husband will reappear in two additional stories in a rather significant way.

"The Dreaming Lady"

This is one of those missing will cases, and a good one.  A splendid estate will go to a cruel, scheming stepson, unless Miss Strange can find the new will, now lost.  To further emphasize for her 1915 American audience the horror of the stepson inheriting, Green makes this nefarious gentleman half-Spanish (his name is Carlos Pelacios).

The heir in the new will is the dead man's nephew, who is expiring from consumption. His wife and young children will be cast out penniless unless the will is found.

Unfortunately, the safekeeping of the will was entrusted to the dying man's aunt and she hid the will somewhere in the mansion's great library during a fit of somnambulism (don't you hate it when that happens).

Violet Strange cleverly deduces the whereabouts of the will, although in all honesty I felt the location was one someone should have searched previously.

"The House of Clocks"

Taking place in a decaying mansion, this story goes in for full Gothic horror, as Strange tries to prevent the murder of a young woman by her stepmother.  I didn't really go in much for this one.  There's not much for Strange to do in the way of detection, and she seemed rather incidental to the events.

"The Doctor, His Wife and the Clock"

the clock ticks....
This long story (really a novella) about a very troubled marriage is one of Green's more celebrated tales.

It has an odd publishing history, having originally appeared as an Ebenezer Gryce tale back in 1895.  For her 1915 story collection, Green wrote out Gryce and wrote in Strange.

The story is really more like a modern day crime novel (or a Victorian sensation novel) than a classical tale of detection; and it's quite bleak in tone and outcome.  Again, Violet Strange seems more of a bystander to events.  However, her involvement with the case does have a great emotional impact on her.

I'm not as great a fan of this tale as some people.  I felt distanced from the characters by their ponderous, declamatory style of speaking.  Originally the story was supposed to take place in 1851, when her original detective, Ebenezer Gryce--probably born around 1820--was a relatively young man.  I can well believe it.  These characters certainly don't sound as if they lived in 1915 (you will have noticed as well from quotations above that Violet Strange doesn't really sound like a young woman born around 1895).

"Missing: Page Thirteen"

This one starts off well, with an investigation by Violet Strange into the disappearance of a scientific formula at house party, but Strange solves this mystery lamentably quickly and simply.  The rest of this long tale goes off into some stuff about a sealed room with an old secret.  I thought this an implausible mish-mash of elements.

"Violet's Own"

In this tale we learn that Violet is retiring from the detective business, as well as just why she took up the business in the first place.  There's really no "problem" here, but the tale does resolve Violet's own personal story, in a way that to my mind rather compromises the feminism of these tales (it's worth noting in this context that Anna Katharine Green was a great opponent of women's suffrage who believed in the separate spheres doctrine).

So, what is my verdict on The Golden Slipper?  I think the collection is certainly worth reading and that a few of the stories stand out for some genuinely good detection.  Others are overly Gothic/Sensation in style for my taste, but aficionados of this sort of fiction should enjoy them more than I did.  Moreover, there's no question that the stories have considerable interest from a historical standpoint, offering readers a notable example of the activities of an early fictional female detective. I would like to read more of Green's short stories.

The edition I read was published in 2009 by World Library Classics.  It's a good quality print-on-demand edition, with no egregious typos, formatting errors, etc. (no introduction, however).  The book is also available online from Project Gutenberg.


  1. I've just bought The Leavenworth Case, which will be my first encounter with Green's writing. I like Victorian sensation novels so I'm hopeful.

  2. D, Leavenworth has so many classic elements, but oh! those Leavenworth ladies should have gone on the stage with those hammy performances! Personally, I find that when it comes to sensation novels I would rather Wilkie Collins or perhaps Mary Braddon.

    However, Green was also quite a plotter, so if you don't mind the lengthy sections of declamatory prose, there's good stuff in the books.