And so to the book that the Classics Club Spin spun to me, and that I read the very next day on a six-hour train journey.
The beginning was exceedingly promising:
“I had been a junior partner in the firm of Veeley, Carr & Raymond, attorneys and counselors at law, for about a year, when one morning, in the temporary absence of both Mr. Veeley and Mr. Carr, there came into our office a young man whose whole appearance was so indicative of haste and agitation that I voluntarily rose as he approached, and advanced to meet him.”
Mr. Raymond was told that Mr. Horatio Leavenworth, a long-standing client of his firm, had been shot and killed in his library. That the door was found locked. That there were no signs of forced entry, no signs of any disturbance at all. And that no-one had been in the house, save Mr Leavenworth’s two nieces and his household staff.
In the absence of his senior partners, Mr Raymond was in attendance as the coroner carried out his investigation. As the secretary, the valet, the cook, gave evidence suspicion fell upon Mary and Eleanore Leavenworth. Their own evidence did little to improve their situation, indeed it suggested that one or both were hiding something or sheltering someone.
But Mr Raymond was charmed, and he was sure that they were innocent, so he undertook to support them and to make further investigations.
Now at this point I was intrigued by the story, and by the many features of the story, published in 1878, that had been taken up by other mystery writers in later years. A body discovered in a locked room. A missing key. Fragments of a burnt letter discovered in a grate. A missing maid …
But I also saw echoes of a book published twenty years earlier, and that led me to make comparisons to an earlier book that were less flattering to this book.
Two young women in peril, with differing natures and differing prospects, and a young man who stepped forward as their protector. I had to think of The Woman in White, but neither Mary or Eleanore could stand comparison with Marion Halcombe, and while I could accept Walter Hartwright, a drawing master, following his heart and putting himself in jeopardy, I found it rather more difficult to accept Everett Raymond, a drawing master, doing the same.
But, as a complex plot unfolded, the story held my attention, and my sympathies and my perceptions of the main players shifted. The characters grew. And I saw themes and situations that were very familiar – a society that restricted women, secret marriages, disfunctional families – and were all handled very well.
I was very taken with the detective, Ebeneezer Gryce, who I am quite sure would have held his own against Inspector Bucket and Inspector Cuff, and I would have liked to spend a little more time with him. But he was bright enough to sit back and let the oh so willing Mr Raymond do the leg work.
Anna Katherine Green created a wonderful mystery but I do wish she had written it a little differently. It was wordy, melodramatic, and often the characters would declaim rather than talk. And I didn’t need to be told that the Leavenworth girls were beautiful and charming quite so many times.
The ending was a little disappointing. Not the logic – that worked – but the full confession that came with just a little push. If only there had been a bit more of a push and a bit less of an explanation it would have worked so much better.
But I did like The Leavenworth Case: as a mystery, as a period piece, and as a significant book in the evolution of crime fiction.