That Affair Next Door (1897) is one of several crime stories penned by the influential genre writer Anna Katharine Green, whose first and most famous novel, 1878's The Leavenworth Case, became a celebrated best-seller on publication. Green's historical timing places her after Poe and as a contemporary of Conan Doyle, so she has a lot of open space to innovate and explore within the nascent medium of detective fiction. That Affair Next Door proves to be an intriguing book both in literary context and on its own, and it is one well worth reading a century and a quarter later.
Soon, law officials appear, among them Detective Ebenezer Gryce, who is even older than the neighbor who is now acting as amateur sleuth. With a sense of competitiveness inflamed and a desire to prove that she can observe and draw conclusions as astutely as any policeman, Miss Amelia sets out on her own investigation. Her objectives include finding the identity of the midnight visitors, learning why the woman arrived without a hat (a societal faux pas surely), and discovering what the cleaning woman knows that she is not telling Detective Gryce. These initial questions lead to others, and an inquest in which the two Van Burnam brothers, Howard and Franklin, give testimony only creates further mystification. Both the professional and the amateur detective are determined to find a solution to the murder, but it is quite likely they might not arrive at the same one.
By this point, Ebenezer Gryce had become the author's series character, having appeared in The Leavenworth Case and other novels. But it is definitely Miss Amelia Butterworth and her personality who drives the story here, narrating in a proud and defiant first-person point-of-view and journeying all over town to collect clues and interview those who might have information. Green paints a winning picture of her self-assured protagonist, and she does a masterful job of keeping Miss Amelia just on the side of likeability, despite a very healthy ego (read: sense of self-importance) and a propensity to be stubborn and empirical. But these strong traits, along with her fearlessness, serve her well, and without this memorable character intellectually and physically driving the story, the murder mystery aspect would lose much of its urgency and charm.
For That Affair Next Door is a lengthy text; it is actually separated into four "books" in the sectional fashion of the time. Printed editions average around 400 pages, and while the prose is not ornate and is easily accessible to modern readers, Green still indulges in the deliberate and verbose syntax one finds in her near-contemporaries like Wilkie Collins and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Whenever Miss Amelia switches from active sleuth to passive audience member, such as during her attendance at the Van Burnam inquest, the book's pacing immediately slows. Fortunately, those moments are few, and she is soon back to her winningly active ways.
There is much here to interest armchair sociologists, and Anna Katharine Green's depiction of turn-of-the-century New England moneyed society, while never critical or overt, is still intriguing. (Green was a member of this group, with her father a successful lawyer.) The Poisoned Press edition provides footnotes, some of which help offer historical context. Miss Butterworth's interview of a Chinese laundry worker, described as "a member of that abominable race", is an unflattering but not unsympathetic stereotype and an artifact of its time, when the "yellow peril" theme in American literature was especially virulent in the late 1900s, as one footnote reminds us.
And last but definitely not least, the mystery itself is a solid one, with some neat shifts in perception and a rather unique murder method, especially as the death-by-furniture scenario partly masks another lethal act. As usually happens with early thrillers that also mix romance and melodrama, there are a couple coincidences and quixotic character behaviors that don't quite convince the modern reader, but by the end of Book Four and the truce arrived at between the competing detectives, the story is satisfying and concludes with all of the pieces assembled and accounted for.
I had never managed to read a mystery from genre pioneer Anna Katharine Green, so I am grateful that the new Library of Congress Crime Classics series has introduced me to the author and her energetic heroine at the heart of That Affair Next Door. The title is available for pre-order and will be released in the U.S. on April 7. I'm very excited to see what other American authors and titles the editors have planned for the series, and I only hope that the schedule allows for a release of more books, and not less, with each year! I received an advance copy from Poisoned Pen Press via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.