Tuesday, April 29, 2014

"It Shows Just How Bad a Detective Story Can Be"

By Anna Katharine Green (1846-1935).
McClure, Phillips & Company.
1900. 289 pages.
Online HERE and HERE.
Criticism of this book is all over the map:
Last month we said something about the making and influence of the detective story, which was suggested by the publication of a new edition of the best-known works of Emile Gaboriau. The subject we deem an interesting one from many sides, and a little book which we have since read provokes us to further comment.
The book in question is The Circular Study, by Anna Katharine Green, and we think it an object of curiosity and interest because it shows just how bad a detective story can be.
Anna Katharine Green enjoys a considerable popularity which is more or less deserved. The Leavenworth Case and Behind Closed Doors were in their way rather good stories. Mrs. Rohlfs put in them the ingredients of real horror. In each book she succeeded admirably in keeping suspicion away from the real criminal until the very end, and if they had not been so badly written and so long-winded, they would have been rather striking books.
The Circular Study, on the other hand, has nothing to recommend it. In our opinion, it is an utterly dreary book. The plot is meaningless, or rather the book contains practically no plot at all.
One Felix Adams is found murdered in an extraordinary house in New York. The first suspect is his butler, the demented and deaf and dumb witness of the crime. There are false clues, which, of course, are the inevitable factors of the commonplace detective story, and the inevitable Mr. Gryce is aided by a young man by the name of Sweetwater, who is likely to be a character of considerable importance in the stories which Mrs. Rohlfs may in future write.
In the present volume, however, he is rather obscure, and the part played by him is comparatively insignificant. The real culprit, or rather culprits, remain in the dark simply because they are not introduced until the latter part of the book, and then the whole thing is so obvious that the reader turns the last page rather disappointed that the closing chapters do not bring about a real surprise.
The central episode in the feud between the Cadwaladers and John Poindexter which directly led to the crime is not only utterly extravagant and ridiculous, but is in a measure an obvious imitation of an incident in Mrs. Augusta J. Evans's St. Elmo, Of course, it is very likely that Mrs. Wilson took it from some one else, who in turn had filched it from an earlier story-teller. — "A Shocker That Fails to Shock," THE BOOKMAN (November 1900)
Other critics give the book qualified respect:
The talented author of the 'Leavenworth Case' ought to be warned in time, or she will make of the detective novel a Chinese puzzle which the reader, even with the author's aid, will "give up" in despair.
The "Circular Study" is a room, of course; a room in which a justifiable homicide, at first thought to be murder in the first degree, was committed.
To learn the causa causans of this shocking event, we have to go back three generations and get very tired of the journey.
Possibly Mrs. Rohlfs cannot help herself, but the interest of such stories cannot be kept up if the plot becomes too involved to follow. — "Novels Old and New," THE NATION (May 10, 1906, page 390, top right)
Although "The Circular Study" develops along orthodox sensational lines that are beginning to show distinct signs of wear, it is a well-constructed and breathlessly-interesting story of its kind.
When Felix Cadwalader is discovered murdered in the strange study he had built for himself, we expect very strong suspicions of the crime to fall on four or five persons, whilst the guilty one is scarcely suspected until near the end, and it happens so in accordance with our expectations.
Nevertheless, the mystery is a good mystery. — "Novel Notes," THE BOOKMAN [U.K.] (August 1902)
The Circular Study (1900) shows a similar dichotomy to The Leavenworth Case, between outstanding detection, and less enjoyable material. The first half of the book (Chapters 1-10) is a straightforward investigation of a crime, with excellent detective work. There is a great deal of pleasant humor and entertaining storytelling as well, in this first half of the novel. At this point we start learning about the suspects' history, and we are in another world, Green's unique universe of nightmarish suffering and horror, where her characters have to endure the most terrible events imaginable. This flashback look at the suspects' tragic lives takes up most of the second half of the book. — Mike Grost, A GUIDE TO CLASSIC MYSTERY AND DETECTION ("Anna Katharine Green")
My verdict: This case is one solved by reasoning, and very clever reasoning it is. The explanations of how certain persons of interest are traced is a particularly interesting demonstration of police leg work in the early 1900s. I should mention the roots of the tragedy go back decades and are more gothic in nature than some mystery readers would prefer, but all in all I found The Circular Study a good read and recommend it. — Mary Reed, GAD Wiki

Category: Detective fiction

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