It’s easy to lose track of our literary heritage in the mad scramble for the next big mystery/thriller genre hit. But if you’re running low on inspiration, and you’re exhausted from scouring Publisher’s Weekly for the latest market trends, then you might want to follow the advice of this week’s guest blogger, mystery author and aficionado Fedora Amis, and turn your attention to the greats of detective fiction past.
The First American Bestseller
by Fedora Amis
I love to play dress up. I caught the costume bug when I was in first grade. I wore a cowboy hat and a toy gun when I sang “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better” with the cutest little blond cowboy in my school. Naturally, when I heard that Sisters in Crime (I’m president of the Greater St. Louis Chapter) was holding a costume contest, I was all agog to don Victorian duds and play a pivotal character in the history of mystery.
Here’s a quiz for you. Who wrote the first American full-length detective novel?
Betcha don’t know its title—The Leavenworth Case. Betcha didn’t know this 1878 mystery was the first true American bestseller. Betcha didn’t know Sir Arthur Conan Doyle of Sherlock Holmes fame was a devotee of this writer. Betcha think it was a man. But no—the first American detective story novelist was a woman: Anna Katherine Green.
What a pity we’ve forgotten our roots! I took SinC’s costume contest as an opportunity to remind mystery lovers that we owe a debt to the mother of the detective novel. I wore a long black skirt and bodice with just a dollop of gold to appear as the well-to-do nosy spinster from Gramercy Park, Miss Amelia Butterworth.
Amelia is a keen observer who understands why humans do what they do. She can get more answers with tea and cakes than a whole police station full of detectives. She loves disguises and keeps snooping around until she can fit all clues into a satisfying solution. Of course, because she’s an old maid and a female, authorities dismiss her as a pest. In truth, her very lack of gravitas gives her the best kind of cover for undercover work. Does this description sound like Miss Jane Marple, and many others since?
Anna Katherine Green is seldom read today. After all, she had to follow the conventions of Victorian prose. Her writing is geared for an audience with superior education, money for books, and leisure time without the constant access to entertainment we have today. Even so, Green’s plots are clever and she knew how to write chilling dialogue. We can learn a lesson from this little sample from the mad villain in her 1898 novel Lost Man’s Lane.
“Well, my pretty one,”—his voice grown suddenly wheedling, his face a study of mingled passions,—“we will see about that. Come just a step nearer, Lucetta. I want to see if you are really the little girl I used to dandle on my knee.”
What could be creepier than honeyed words laid over a tone of menace?
Edgar Allen Poe wrote the first detective story, but honors for the first full-length detective novel go to a Frenchman, Emile Gaboriau (L’Affaire Lerouge, 1866). Just two years later, Englishman Wilkie Collins published The Moonstone, a work praised by T.S. Eliot as “the first, the longest and the best of modern English detective novels… in a genre invented by Collins and not by Poe.” With her 1878 novel, Anna Katherine Green was not only the first American to write a detective novel; she was the first woman on planet earth.
As mystery writers, I hope we never lose sight of our literary heritage. I urge everyone to follow the example of those who have gone before. They were innovators. They boldly steered storytelling somewhere new. Besides the example they set, our mystery ancestors teach us how to write better.
A writer who spends a little time with Dorothy L. Sayers can’t help learning how to add humor to mystery. Reading Josephine Tey will surely sharpen a writer’s wits. An author inclined to tell too much too soon should study the way Agatha Christie unravels clues and reveals characters little by little. Time with the greats is time well spent.
George Santayana said, “Those who don’t remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” That’s a great warning for mankind, and good advice to writers. Look to those who came before—read and learn.
Fedora Amis has won numerous awards including Outstanding Teacher of Speech in Missouri, membership in three halls of fame—state and national speech organizations and her own high school alma mater. Her non-fiction publications include books on speaking and logic, and articles for educational magazines. She won the Mayhaven Fiction Award for her Victorian whodunit, Jack the Ripper in St. Louis, and performs as real historical people and imagined characters from the 1800s. Fedora loves live theater, travel, plants, and cooking. She has one son, Skimmer, who partners Fedora in writing science fiction, fantasy, and magical realism. “Why do I write? I love words—always have—reading them, writing them. I even like looking them up in the dictionary.”
Don’t miss her new historical mystery, Mayhem at Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, coming from Five Star in February 2016. Visit Fedora’s website at www.Fedoraamis.com and follow her on Facebook at Fedoraamisauthor, and on Twitter @fedorandskimmer.
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