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The Women Who Make Our Novels

by Grant Martin Overton

The real Anna Katharine Green is a terrible mystery. We do not mean Mrs. Charles Rohlfs of 156 Park Street, Buffalo, whose husband is an expert maker of fine furniture and who wrote Initials Only and The Leavenworth Case. We mean the Anna Katharine Green Mind, a Mind no longer young counted by years, a Mind as subtle and powerful and clever as ever, counted by achievement. Read The Mystery of the Hasty Arrow, published at the close of 1917, if you doubt that Mind’s unabated mastery. Anna Katharine Green—but hush! What awe-inspiring quality invests the mere whisper of that name? Why do cold shivers run up and down our backs? Why in our commonplace surroundings—porch, porch chairs, typewriter, manuscript—why, why do we chill all over? Why do the thrills in dots and dashes like a hurrying Morse code torture our nerves?

We will tell you.

It is because last night we opened a book and read:


“A high and narrow gate of carefully joined boards, standing ajar in a fence of the same construction! What is there in this to rouse a whole neighborhood and collect before it a group of eager, anxious, hesitating people?

“I will tell you.

“This fence is no ordinary fence, and this gate no ordinary gate; nor is the fact of the latter standing a trifle open, one to be lightly regarded or taken an inconsiderate advantage of. For this is Judge Ostrander’s place. . . .”

We read. And we read. The others retired for the night. The pale moon swam slowly through the heavens, regarding us with a calm, cold indifference. The town clock boomed midnight, then one, then two. Fatality hung in the air. Horror coursed in the veins and the blood ceased to pulse through the arteries. Occasionally a ripened apple dropped from the nearby tree to the ground. At the thud we jumped. But we could not stop until, on page 381, the last of Dark Hollow, we had read the solemn words: “Peace for him; and for Reuther and Oliver, hope!” Then we crept off to bed. Utter exhaustion of all sensation brought swift sleep. . . .

It must have been about a third of the way through that the conviction stole over us of Judge Ostrander’s guilt. Who murdered Algernon Etheridge in Dark Hollow? Did John Scoville, executed for the crime? Did—shuddering thought—young Oliver Ostrander slay that friend of his father’s whom he hated so? Neither . . . neither! Then who? Why, the unlikeliest person in the book, of course, and trust Anna Katharine Green to make it plausible!

Mrs. Green—it is difficult to know whether to call Mrs. Rohlfs “Miss Green” or “Mrs. Green”—Mrs. Green cannot write “for a cent,” as slang has it; but she can write and has written for a good many dollars! And by that we don’t mean her motive is purely businesslike; we prefer to believe that she writes for the exercise of her marvelous and peculiar talent, and to afford excitement and entertainment to many thousands who read her books. What is this talent? (It is impossible in writing about her to avoid falling into the theatricism of her narrative style!)

Did you ever try to write a mystery story? If you have tried you will understand much better than we can tell you. And if you haven’t it will be necessary to take a single specimen of Mrs. Green’s work to illustrate her powers.

Dark Hollow—and she never wrote a more excellent yarn—centers about the murder of Algernon Etheridge twelve years before the narrative begins. John Scoville, keeper of a tavern, was tried and executed for the crime, swearing his innocence. Etheridge was the closest personal friend Judge Archibald Ostrander had. Circumstances compelled Judge Ostrander to preside at Scoville’s trial and the Judge was not merely impartial, but manifestly favored, so far as was compatible with fairness, the defense. The evidence against Scoville was purely circumstantial but strong. He had been in Dark Hollow that night at the time of the crime. Etheridge was killed with Scoville’s stick. Scoville’s character was bad.

For twelve years since the crime Judge Ostrander has lived shut off from the world, except for his appearances on the bench. His grounds are walled off by a high board fence within a high board fence and he lives alone with a huge negro servant. His son and he have parted irrevocably.

When the story opens this negro, Bela, has gone forth on morning errands, unprecedentedly leaving the gate in the fence ajar! A woman in purple, heavily veiled, has entered the grounds. The gaping neighborhood ventures in after her but does not find her. The crowd comes upon the Judge sitting erect and apparently lifeless in his house! It is an attack of catalepsy. A little later the negro, mortally wounded by an automobile, returns and dies trying to guard the iron door in the house which preserves his master’s secret.

The woman in purple turns out to be Mrs. Scoville. She sees the Judge and tells him that his son, Oliver, has fallen in love with her daughter, Reuther. She also tells him of her conviction that her husband did not slay Etheridge. It is a conviction arrived at since his execution. Late as it is, she is determined to do what she can to uncover new evidence.

Chapter by chapter, piling sensation on sensation, Mrs. Green writes of Mrs. Scoville’s quest. There is the shadow of the man in the peaked cap seen advancing into Dark Hollow at the hour of the crime. There is the picture of Oliver Ostrander secreted in his father’s house with a band of black painted across the eyes. There is the point of a knife blade in the stick with which Etheridge was killed, and the blade from which it was broken lies folded in Oliver’s desk. A peaked cap hangs in Oliver’s closet! Just when every circumstance drives home the conviction of Oliver’s guilt Judge Ostrander shows Mrs. Scoville a written statement that establishes the fact of an earlier murder by her husband. She is taken all aback and for the moment she believes again that the right man was put to death for the murder of Etheridge. But the Judge allows her to look at the document a moment too long. It has been tampered with at the close; forgery has been done!

Oliver must be found, for an accusation against him has got abroad and the police are looking for him. There is a race between the agents of the district attorney and the messengers of the Judge. He is found in a remote spot in the Adirondacks and flees, but whether to return home at his father’s summons or to escape to Canada, who knows ? By a desperate drop over the side of a cliff he has landed in a tree top. The train is not due for fifteen minutes. He’ll catch it.

“ ‘The train south?’

“ ‘Yes, and the train north. They pass here.’ “

Is it a return or a flight to escape? Thus, in chapter after chapter, Mrs. Green creates new suspense, introduces new thrills. As each lesser uncertainty is resolved a fresh one takes its place and always the great major questions hang unanswered over her story —till the very close. Then the one closed avenue to a solution is unbarred, the stunning surprise is sprung and the curtain falls swiftly on a stupefying denouement. Between the big revelation and the very end of the tale there is just time enough and just explanation enough to convince the reader of what he would least have believed before.

This faint outline of a capital story illustrates Mrs. Green’s talent. Now for the explanation. The whole art of it consists in a truly infinite capacity for taking pains. Before writing this story it was necessary to write, or get clearly in mind, the biographies of half a dozen people. Their lives had to be fully known to the author, even to innumerable incidents which would not be used in her story. Particularly was it necessary to know every aspect in the past of the relations of these people to each other.

It was next necessary to reconstruct the crime. A period of twenty minutes or half an hour at a given place was under consideration. Where was this place and where did it stand with respect to every other place in the story—Judge Ostrander’s house, the Claymore Inn, the ruin of Spencer’s Folly? A map had to be made. It is an illustration in the book. But much more than a map was necessary. The exact whereabouts of every one of half a dozen persons for the whole twenty minutes or half hour had to be settled. Etheridge, Scoville, Mrs. Scoville, Oliver and Judge Ostrander were all in or near Dark Hollow. Just where was each at every moment? Just what was each doing? Just what could, and did, each say and do and hear and see? The author must know all these things in order to spare the reader what is irrelevant. She must have every inch of the ground at her fingertips and every instant clear. You don’t believe this? Try writing a story like Dark Hollow, improvising as you go along, or working from a mere outline, and see what happens to you!

The only improvisation in such work as Mrs. Green’s is in respect of what might be called chapter climaxes—the brief thrills, one or more to a chapter, which arise, administer their shock to the reader’s nerves, and are cleared up some pages later. Many of these are planned in advance, a few suggest themselves as the writer goes along, others are real inspirations which have suggested themselves during the writing and are substituted for planned but less effective climaxes. Such is the incident cited above where two trains, one bound south and the other bound for Canada, meet and pass at the little mountain station.

It is frequently said that the whole art of a mystery story or detective story of the kind Mrs. Green writes is to direct suspicion at every person except the right one, until the end! This is clever and partly true, but it takes no account of the vast amount of construction which must go forward before a sentence of the story can be put on paper; it ignores the fact that the criminal, to be convincing, must have figured in the story from the start, for otherwise he will appear as a desperate invention to help the author out of an otherwise insoluble situation. Looking at Dark Hollow in retrospect it is quite easy to see why certain things had to be—so. Judge Ostrander had to be the murderer because he was the person least likely to kill his dearest friend. Oliver had to be under suspicion to make Judge Ostrander’s confession plausible. The Judge had to be the murderer, furthermore, that Reuther Scoville might not be an unfit person to become the wife of Oliver. Oliver had to be cleared that he might be fit to mate with Reuther! Yes, yes; but all this wisdom after the event gets nowhere. It does not penetrate to the heart of the action and throws no light on the author’s cunning. Do you suppose for a moment that she made her story out of such nice little expediencies as these? You can’t build a story that way. It won’t hold together for a moment.

No! The real starting point in Dark Hollow was the conception on the part of Mrs. Green of a man who should, in a moment’s fit of passion, slay his closest friend and who should thereafter, for twelve years, inflict on himself a peculiar punishment, imprisoning himself in a convict’s cell in his own home! All the rest—the painting of a black band across the eyes of his son’s portrait that they might not look on his father, murderer and coward; the sending of that son away from home for all time; the building of a double fence to guard against intrusion by so much as an eye at a knothole—all these followed. Then on this solid foundation of a single life, a single idea, a single stricken conscience arose, course by course, the complicated and wonderful (but solid and sound) structure of the book.

That is the talent of Anna Katharine Green, explained, analyzed and illustrated. Things there are about it that cannot be explained or analyzed. These we pass. We have said that she cannot write. It is true. The Leavenworth Case, and The Mystery of the Hasty Arrow and Dark Hollow—every one of her many books is wretchedly written, full of trite and cheap expressions, full of cliches, dotted with ludicrous trifles of thought and expression, spotted with absurdities, as where the negro Bela is struck and fatally injured by an automobile at the outset of Dark Hollow. The car inflicted a terrible gash in his head and we are informed that “it took a sixty horsepower racing machine going at a high rate of speed to kill him”! And then it didn’t do it instantaneously! If Mrs. Green could have had a collaborator with only average literary skill she would carry everything irresistibly before her. Her mind, joined to a pen capable of writing freshly, simply, with dramatic effect but without theatricism, without sentimental mawkishness, would have achieved books to be put on the shelf alongside the stories of Poe, classical, perfect, immortal.

But if she is not immortal she will live a long, long time! Without ever having created a character to compare with Sherlock Holmes she has constructed tales more baffling than any of the crimes Sir Conan Doyle’s detective solved. She has not had to resort to exotic coloring as Doyle has sometimes had to do to conceal thinness of story. She has not had to depend upon abstruse mathematical ciphers and codes as Poe did in The Goldbug. She has not had to carry us through generations and coincidences as Gaboriau did in File No. 113. She never employs the fanciful inversions and mystical paradoxes by which Gilbert K. Chesterton establishes, not so much the existence of crime and criminals, as The Innocence of Father Brown. She can handle more complex strands than Melville Davisson Post. But Mr. Post can write rings around her! When we get the Anna Katharine Green Mind and the Melville Davisson Post Art joined in a single person America will produce the detective and mystery stories not of a decade nor of a generation but of all time. Meanwhile let us give Mrs. Green her due. In her way, and we have tried to show her way and to differentiate it from the ways of others, she is the most accomplished story-teller in American literary history. She is unique, and with anything unique it is well to be satisfied!