Curtis Evans’s Anna Katharine Green piece at Crimereads is everything I’ve come to expect from its author in the two decades I’ve known him – and which I always trust him to deliver: perceptive, knowledgeable, sound and unlike his subject, smoothly written. In other words, it is a must-read even for those like me who are not really into « the mother of the detective novel » as it gives one lots of food for thought on a subject that has long preoccupied me: Who gets to decide what books will survive or be forgotten, and how?
Books don’t change, readers do. The Leavenworth Case was every bit as good or bad when it first appeared in 1878 as it is now, but its rocky critical history was shaped by changing expectations rather than objective assessments or reassessments of its merits. The Victorians and Edwardians loved it because of its novelty aspect and also because it encapsulated their moral and literary values – which happens to be the very reason why the Golden Agers and later critics eager to infuse their brand of « modernity » in the genre rejected it. The Leavenworth Case was everything they disliked: melodramatic, overwritten and long-winded. It thus belonged in the dustbin of history where it would probably still be lingering today had another paradigm change not occurred, driven by feminism, a renewal of interest in all things Victorian and longer, slower and character-driven narratives being fashionable again. Each generation read the same book but in a different way and with different expectations of what a « good » crime novel must be – and no one knows at this point what the future has in store for Green and her magnum opus.
What this story demonstrates is that a book’s legacy is essentially shaped by arbitrary factors. It all depends on who’s shouting the loudest – and it appears that Green’s supporters have the upper hand for now. This is good news for vintage mystery fans who can take heart that obscurity is not necessarily a one-way ticket; all it takes to rescue a forgotten book is to build an audience for it, which admittedly is easier said than done but is possible as the Green case demonstrates.
There is however a problem with this Green revival, one that Curtis points out: The Leavenworth Case may be historically important but it is not a very good book, and Green herself had several issues as a writer, so that her Golden Age critics may have had some points in dismissing her*. What’s more, the current interest in hers and other long-forgotten Victorian ladies like Braddon or Wood seems to be mostly driven by a legitimate desire to redress injustices perceived or genuine and not by a genuine literary enthusiasm. The role of women in the making and development of the crime fiction genre has admittedly long been downplayed and is only now beginning to be fully recognized, but does being a milestone always equate being great? That is the question and I don’t have an answer – feel free to share yours in the comments.
* Green still has her detractors today: LeRoy Panek in his Origins of the American Detective Story goes as far as to deny Leavenworth‘s detective novel status, arguing instead that the book is pure sensation fiction.