Friday, February 22, 2013

Anna Katharine Green - A Strange Disappearance

While Lost Man's Lane, which I wrote about a few days ago, was a combination of Victorian gothic and "cozy" detective novel, A Strange Disappearance, published in 1880, 18 years before Lost Man's Lane, is more a combination of Victorian melodrama and soft boiled detective novel, and probably more the former than the latter, infused heavily with Victorian sensibilities and moralizing.

It begins when Mrs. Daniels, housekeeper to the politically important and wealthy Mr. Blake, goes to the police and requests that they investigate the "strange disappearance" of one of her employees, a seamstress.  She gets the attention of Mr. Gryce, who, however, is busy with other important investigations, so a younger detective, known only as "Q", and who is the narrator of this story, performs the primary investigation.

Collecting any information about the seamstress, like who she is, exactly, and why she might be kidnapped - and by whom, proves to be a difficult undertaking.  Mrs. Daniels is strangely mum about all this even as she is frantic to have the girl found.  Meanwhile, Mr. Blake presents as indifferent at best about his missing employee, but simultaneously is observed engaging in distinctly suspicious behavior.

"Q", with the help of the accomplished Mr. Gryce, gradually unravels the mystery.  But will they be in time to save the happy ending?  It's hard to moralize without something of a happy ending for the virtuous, self-sacrificing, self-effacing, and, of course, beautiful Victorian heroine, right?

Since I don't mind Victorian melodrama, even like it (within reason), and I also like classic detective novels, I found the novel enjoyable.

Actually, I thought the most interesting character to be the Countess De Mirac, probably because she was less cardboard than the others (and fell short of the Victorian female ideal).  Since she was a secondary character used to build up the mystery, once her part was done she faded out, which really was a shame.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Anna Katharine Green - Lost Man's Lane. A Second Episode in the Life of Amelia Butterworth

I should have read That Affair Next Door, the first "episode" for Amelia Butterworth before this one.  I can't remember why I selected this one instead; it was months ago that I got the book (e-book, actually).  Having finished Lost Man's Lane, I'm very much interested in reading The Affair Next Door.

Anna Katharine Green was an American writer, one of the progenitors of the detective fiction genre, publishing a number of books from 1878 through 1923, and quite an influence on her successors, Agatha Christie among them.  She was a best-selling author in her day, though her name has floated off into near-obscurity since then, especially compared to some of her successors in the emerging genre.

Lost Man's Lane is a really interesting combination of a Victorian gothic horror story and what is now called "cozy" detective fiction (if you can believe it), an Ann Radcliffe novel told from the perspective of a sensible (not the Sense and Sensibility type of sensible), intelligent - female - amateur detective, who doesn't faint away or require any rescuing.  Another female character, however, does quite a bit of swooning.

Amelia Butterworth, our amateur detective and narrator, is a well-to-do middle-aged spinster from fashionable New York City, who is called upon by her friend, Inspector Gryce, whom she assisted in That Affair Next Door, to informally help in some mysterious disappearances; these have occurred over a span of years in a nearby town, along a lonely road now called "Lost Man's Lane" by the locals.  She happens to have a connection there, the grown children of a friend from her student days, Althea Knollys.  Althea Knollys died abroad some seven years ago, and Miss Butterworth had been meaning to pay a visit to the children - but never did.  So she decides to finally pay that long-neglected visit.

In addition to the mysterious disappearance of a handful of men over the years, there appears to be very strange things afoot at the large, gloomy, and very decrepit house of the Knollys family; the children, Loreen, Lucetta, and William, are oddly secretive and evasive; it's clear they're hiding something... maybe the body of the latest victim?

Miss Butterworth doesn't for once speculate on some supernatural reason for the strange occurrences, looking no further than the likely suspects she meets.  She does her best to sleuth about, finding out what she can about the handful of people living along the road, then trying to penetrate the mysterious goings-on at the house.

The story is predictable as both a gothic and detective story, but Green's unique mix of the two "genres", how they interact with each other to tie up the plot, as well as the pacing of the story, the colorful - though rather two-dimensional - characters, and Green's clever use of Miss Butterworth's perspective - all make for enjoyable reading.