Online Edition: Summer 2004

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The Dead Letter & The Figure Eight

Metta Fuller Victor

Duke University Press ($21.95)


That Affair Next Door & Lost Man's Lane

Anna Katherine Green

Duke University Press ($21.95)

by Kris Lawson

For readers who think that Lifetime movies and the muddled genre books that combine romance and serial killers are a product of our tawdry age, Duke University Press has reprinted four 19th-century sensationalist classics that are titillating, vulgar, and moralistic by turns, full of violent action and passion, and as shallow and materialistic as reality television. Such fiction, however, provided an arena for women eager to become writers, and the novels collected in these two volumes—which each contain a fine introduction by scholar Catherine Ross Nickerson—display how vital that opportunity was.

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Metta Fuller Victor was the first American—male or female—to write a full-length procedural detective novel (the honor for creating the genre is usually bestowed upon Poe, but as Nickerson points out, "As the brevity of Poe's stories suggests, he first conceived the detective story, for all its structural sophistication, as a concentrated form"). Now-familiar elements of traditional detective novels are present in Victor's books: the crime that occurs immediately before or at the beginning of the story, clues mixed with red herrings, multiple suspects (including the narrator) who all have detailed motives, the investigation and unveiling of the criminal, and finally, retribution or justice. Victor combines these tropes with Gothic/horror elements: the dread family secret, the moldering mansion with mysterious locked doors and strange noises, women in long, trailing white nightgowns wandering the halls in "somnambulistic excursions." The author blends these ingredients into a crowd-pleasing sensationalist brew, but her concentration on solving the murders and detailing the steps of those investigations sets her books apart.

A straightforward mystery, The Dead Letter opens mid-story, the murder and initial investigation taking place in flashback. The narrator, Richard Redfield, is an impoverished prospective attorney studying with the kindly Mr. Argyll, who has promised him a job in his law firm. Redfield is in love with Eleanor Argyll, the oldest daughter, who is engaged to Henry Moreland. James Argyll, a ne'er-do-well nephew, also disapproves of Eleanor's engagement. Since Eleanor is a rich heiress and James has a gambling habit, Redfield suspects that James does not truly love her. On a dark and stormy night, Moreland leaves the train station but never arrives at the Argyll house; he is found stabbed to death the next morning on the path from the station. Both James and Redfield are suspects; also suspect are a mysterious woman who followed Moreland from the station and a sinister black-eyed stranger who stared at Moreland on the train. The "dead letter" holds a vital clue for Redfield's investigation, aided by Mr. Burton and his psychic daughter Lenore.

The Figure Eight is more Byzantine in plot. Dr. Meredith, recently returned from California with $60,000 in gold a Cuban wife barely older than his daughter Lillian, is found dead with a glass of poisoned port next to him. He leaves a scrawled message containing a figure eight, which his family believes to be a clue to find the gold he had hidden somewhere on the Meredith estate. Joe Meredith, an orphaned nephew with a history of bad luck and troublemaking, is the narrator; desperately in love with Lillian, he is also the main suspect. Also suspect are Miss Miller, the upright governess; Arthur Miller, her brother who is looking for a rich heiress to wed; and Inez, Dr. Meredith's fiery young wife whose passion for Arthur is an open family secret. After the estate where the gold is hidden passes to a new owner, Joe and Miss Miller suspect each other of the murder and frequently run into each other as they search for the gold. Arthur excites Inez' jealousy by flirting with the rich heiress who now lives on the Meredith estate, and Don Miguel de Almeda appears, ostensibly to reunite with his cousin Inez, but also to fall in love with Lillian.

Victor's novels have many of the elements of sensationalist fiction. Her two narrators take on disguises and new identities; they experience hallucinations, dreams, even psychic revelations that spur them on or aid them in their investigations. Marriage is a treacherous state; love, especially passionate love, is suspect and those who profess it have sinister motives. However, her story structure, in which the crimes happen before or just as the books begin and are solved as the books progress, is a departure for the genre and more typical of detective stories, where procedure trumps character and controls the plot.

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Anna Katherine Green, writing a few decades later in the post-Civil War era, took her inspiration from Victor as well as contemporaries such as Louisa May Alcott and other women writers, most of whom hid under ambiguous or male pseudonyms. Green herself influenced and inspired later women writers of genre fictions such as Agatha Christie and Mary Roberts Rinehart.

That Affair Next Door introduces Amelia Butterworth, a wealthy maiden lady who matches wits with Mr. Gryce, a police detective, as they solve a murder together. Despite the sparks struck against Mr. Gryce's old-fashioned notions of women, Amelia's partnership with him is successful: she finds clues and matches them to motive and opportunity, while Gryce's solid investigative procedure keeps Amelia's flights of imagination grounded in reality. The Van Burnams, Amelia's neighbors, return home from a long trip only to find the dead body of a young woman crushed under their dining room display cabinet. When the victim is identified as Silas Van Burnam's estranged daughter-in-law, Amelia—having witnessed the strange midnight arrival of a young woman and her mysterious companion—uses her friendships, her maid's acting skills, and her own resources to find the clues that lead to the killer's capture.

Lost Man's Lane has more of a Gothic tone. The titular lane is in a small upstate village, where four tramps have disappeared. Amelia's best friend from school days has recently died and her children are still living in the family home, which happens to be at the far end of the lane. Urged by Mr. Gryce, Amelia drops in for a visit and to solve the mystery of the disappearing tramps. Shaken by revelations of her friend's unhappy marriage, attracted by the friendly neighbor Mr. Trohm, and kept awake by ominous noises from mysteriously locked rooms, Amelia does not enjoy her stay in the Gothic genre. With her humor and stubbornness, however, she manages to solve the mystery (again with Mr. Gryce's help) and bursts through a few Gothic conventions while she's at it.

Green's novels had a far-reaching influence on the mystery genre—any story with an unmarried older woman solving crimes owes a great debt to her. But Miss Butterworth, as appealing as she is, is only part of Green's formula. To have a woman, no matter how smart or wealthy, be seen as the equal to a male police detective—and moreover, to have that woman's skills actively sought by police detectives—was a major breakthrough. Amelia's greatest talent consists of spotting clues where others see only domestic details of no importance (a ripped dress, a broken hatpin, a misshapen ball of yarn) and linking them to motivation and character (her observations of human behavior, studied in great detail in her small circle of friends and relatives, applied widely to the human race as a whole). Those themes, along with the light humor sprinkled throughout Green's books, greatly contributed to the foundation of the "cozy" mystery, a bestseller in all its manifestations even today.

Sensationalist novels were the first American fiction to reach bestseller status; Green's 1878 work The Leavenworth Case, in fact, was (as Nickerson tells us) the best-selling novel of that year. Combining in embryonic form the elements of what became distinct genres such as Western, mystery, romance and adventure fiction, sensationalist fiction in pulp books and in newspapers reflected the mass consumption tastes of America—a rapidly expanding, industrializing America with the dirt of slavery and oppression of women under its nails, a country discovering that introspective literature only led to introspective thought (a bad thing when there was so much land to steal from the Indians, so many immigrants to exploit, so many resources to snatch up and hoard). Like the newly-manufactured religions of that era or the widely available cheap beer, sensationalist fiction could be consumed easily and required no thought.

Derided in its day just as genre fiction is today, sensationalist literature had one positive result: women could participate powerfully and meaningfully in a new medium. Granted, many women writers used male pseudonyms or ambiguous initials: Victor wrote as Seeley Regester; Louisa May Alcott was A.M. Barnard. But the sheer volume of and demand for sensational fiction gave women an opportunity to dive in and swim in those churning waters despite their murky taint and odor of hellfire. Perhaps the pseudonyms were also useful to hide behind when an author was not especially proud of her pot-boiled work.

In her novel Little Women, Alcott confessed how ashamed she was of her own excursions into sensationalist literature. Jo March, Alcott's avatar, is initially proud of her moneymaking ability and of seeing her work in print, but when a friend points out the shallowness of her writing, Jo realizes "she was beginning to desecrate some of the womanliest attributes of a woman's character. She was living in bad society, and imaginary though it was, its influence affected her, for she was feeding heart and fancy on dangerous and unsubstantial food, and was fast brushing the innocent bloom from her nature by a premature acquaintance with the darker side of life, which comes soon enough to all of us."

Alcott's moral qualms may have prevented her from realizing that "acquaintance with the darker side of life" was a necessary feature if women were to participate fully in society—as faulty, shallow, and dangerous as it may occasionally be. For women such as Metta Fuller Victor and Anna Katherine Green, descending into the world of sensationalist fiction, in all its vulgarity and ugliness, provided them with the opportunity to create new genres, which today have more appeal and possibilities than they might have hoped.

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Summer 2004 Table of Contents