Crime Fiction Alphabet: X

Kerrie’s Crime Fiction Alphabet has now reached, for me at least, the most difficult letter of the alphabet. Last year I wrote about Qiu Xiaolong’s  A Loyal Character Dancer and I had intended to read another of his books for the letter X – Death of a Red Heroine. But time and inclination overtook me and I haven’t read it yet.

So, I was going to pass on this letter until I came across X, Y, Z: a Story Told by a Detective (1883) by Anna Katherine Green, a short mystery free on Kindle. It’s only 97 pages and didn’t take long to read.

I hadn’t heard of Anna Katherine Green (1846 – 1935), but according to Wikipedia she was an American poet and novelist and was one of the first American authors to write detective fiction. She published about 40 novels and her first book, The Leavenworth Case was a bestseller, praised by Wilkie Collins. Looking at Amazon, I think most of her books are available free as e-books.

The narrator, an un-named detective has been assigned to investigate a gang of counterfeiters and being told of a number of suspicious-looking letters addressed to X, Y, Z, Brandon, Mass., discovers a completely different crime. (We’re told at the end that the counterfeiters were discovered but not by the narrator.) After waiting to see who collects these letters the detective follows the trail to the house of the wealthy and secretive Benson family where a fancy dress ball is to take place that evening. When  Mr Benson is found dead it is up to the detective to unmask the guilty person.

It wasn’t difficult to work out who the culprit was. Its greatest attraction for me is that it is an example of crime fiction written before the ‘Golden Age’, a forerunner of detective fiction. It’s written in a somewhat formal and stilted style, and is melodramatic as this extract describing Mr Benson’s death shows:

Mr Benson at once turned the key, but no sooner had he done so than he staggered back. For an instant or two of horror he stood oscillatiing from side to side, then his frame succombed, and the terrified eyes of his children beheld his white head lying low, all movement and appearance of life gone from the form that but a moment before towered so proudly above them.

With a shriek, the daughter threw herself down at his side, and even the cheek of Hartley Benson grew white as he leaned over his father’s already inanimate body.

“He is dead!” came a wild cry from her lips. “See! he does not breathe. Oh! Hartley, what could have happened? Do you think that Joe -”

“Hush!” he exclaimed, with a furtive glance around him.

But it moves swiftly along, with clearly defined characters and a well-described setting and it interested me enough to want to investigate more of Green’s novels.