I was very taken with the detective, Ebeneezer Gryce, when I read ‘The Leavenworth Case’ a few years ago; and so when I realised that his second recorded case would fill a tricky year in my 100 Years of Books I had to read it.
The story begins in the middle of a conversation between a group of detectives, with one of the most astute and accomplished men, who is known only as ‘Q’, saying to a group of colleagues:
“Talking of sudden disappearances the one you mention of Hannah in that Leavenworth case of ours, is not the only remarkable one which has come under my direct notice. Indeed, I know of another that in some respects, at least, surpasses that in points of interest, and if you will promise not to inquire into the real names of the parties concerned, as the affair is a secret, I will relate you my experience regarding it.”
There is a great deal that is strange about the disappearance of a sewing girl from the house of a notable and wealthy man. It is the housekeeper who asks for assistance, because she is sure that the girl he has been abducted. She is remarkably firm about that point, and about the good character of someone she has only known for a very short time; even going so far as to offer a reward. Her employer, on the other hand, is completely disinterested and wants nothing to do with the detectives who are carrying out investigations in his home. It was difficult for them to find out much at all about the missing girl, because she had not shared accommodation with the other servants; the housekeeper had given her much nicer quarters inside the sewing room, and she had rarely left that room.
I could see possibilities, but none of them quite worked; and the mystery really did seem inexplicable.
Mr Gryce said little, but he handled people beautifully, and later in the story it became clear that he had observed a great deal and that there were very good reasons why he was held in such high regard.
He stationed Q in a boarding house across the road, to observe the household and to keep a particularly close eye on the master of the house. He observes a great deal, and he is drawn into high drama when he follows his suspect a very long way from home.
Q couldn’t make sense of it all, but Mr Gryce could; and he knew exactly how and when to reveal what he knew and to persuade others to talk.
Anna Katherine Green constructed a very cunning plot, and she wrote very well. The story could have been set in any of a number of periods, but her writing style and her handling of romance places it very firmly in the Victorian era. When I read ‘The Leavenworth Case’ I saw the influence of Wilkie Collins, and I see it again in this book.
I was intrigued by the mystery, and I was particularly taken by the drawing of the two detectives and the relationship between them. The older man was a very capable professional, no more and no less; while the younger man appreciated this and was pleased to be working with him, to learn from him, and maybe to one day emulate him. The other characters had rather less depth, but they were clearly defined and they served this story well.
The setting up of the story and the beginning of the resolution were much stronger than the final denouement. There was high drama, there was grand romance, but it was all a little too much. I was very pleased with the final solution, but I wish that it might have been reached a little more quickly and with rather less fuss.
This is not a book to rank with the great women crime writers who would emerge in the 20th century, but it is a very readable and very entertaining period mystery; and it wouldn’t surprise me at all to learn that one or more of them had read and enjoyed this book and others by its author when they were young.