Anna Katharine Green, the ‘mother of detective fiction’

January 22, 2022 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: journalism, Women writers and journalists, writers, writing.

With the publication of the stories of the murders in the Rue Morgue, Edgar Allan Poe is deservedly labeled as the “father of modern detective fiction.” Unfortunately, he died too soon to develop that genre. That became the task of others.

One of those authors, now long forgotten, was Anna Katharine Green. She is credited by those who remember her as “the mother of the modern detective novel.”

What did Anna Catherine Green do to deserve this moniker?

It is from her that we get an expanded concept — Poe had the idea first — of a series of storiese that use the same detective but vary in circumstance and technique. We also get from her writings other standards of the modern detective novel, such as:

 — innovative plot design innovative plot devices

— complex puzzles

— legally accurate investigations

— dead bodies in libraries and other unlikely places

— “clews,”such as newspaper clippings and other things distributed throughout the text

— the coroner’s inquest

— expert witnesses

In addition to all of these items, Green created characters for her books that anticipated Nancy Drew, the young society female who solves murders, and Miss Marple, the elderly spinster who is sometimes interfering but seems to see things that other characters miss.

Most importantly, Green popularized detective fiction with her 1878 publication of the book The Leavenworth Case, an immediate and runaway bestseller. The book appeared a full decade before the debut of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle. That book and the subsequent novels that Green published had a profound influence on the likes of Agatha Christie, Mary Roberts Reinhart, and Dorothy L Sayers, among many other authors.

So who was Anna Katharine Green, this author who most of us have never heard of?

She was born in 1846 in Brooklyn New York. She wanted to be a writer, but her first ambition was to be a poet, and to that end she corresponded with Ralph Waldo Emerson. Some of her poetry was published, but it failed to achieve the recognition that she had hoped for. In 1878, she published The Leavenworth Case, and that book broke new ground in the genre of detective fiction. It was praised by none other than English mystery writer Wilkie Collins, and it made her famous with the reading public.

Green’s lead detective in the book was a man named Ebenezer Gryce of the New York Metropolitan Police Force. Gryce normally worked with some kind of assistant, Those assistants changed from book to book. One was a nosy society dame named Amelia Butterworth. Eventually, Amelia Butterworth got her own novels from Green.

Another of her characters with Violet Strange, a debutante by day and a sleuth by night.

Green died in Buffalo, New York in 1935 at the age of 88. By then she had published 40 books and numerous short stories. Most were detective fiction, but occasionally she strayed from that genre into suspense.

Her books were so legally accurate there at one point they sparked a debate within the Pennsylvania State Senate about whether or not the book could “really have been written by woman.”

Agatha Christie, in her autobiography, was unstinting in her praise of Green. She credited her interest in detective fiction to reading Green’s books early in her life.

While Greene made women the central characters of many of her books, in her real life she was no pioneer for women’s rights. In fact, she declared herself against women’s suffrage , And that is possibly one of the reasons why we hear so little of her today. Her fiction was truly groundbreaking, and the fact that she has been obscured — and that her work is noted so infrequently — equates to a literary tragedy.


Much of Green’s work is available at Project Gutenberg and the Internet Archive.

Audio of several of her books and short stories is available here at LibriVox.

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