Friday, March 6, 2015

First Ladies of Crime Fiction

Quick--who was the first woman to publish a mystery novel?

Despite her many achievement, no, it wasn’t Agatha Christie. Technically, the honor goes to Seeley Regester, the pseudonym used by Metta Victoria Fuller Victor, whose novel The Dead Letter was published in 1867. But, Anna Katherine Green (photo below), whose novel The Leavenworth Case became a runaway bestseller in 1878, is generally acknowledged as “the mother of the detective novel.”

I’ve chosen to pay tribute to both for their achievements, since March is National Women’s History Month.

Metta Victoria Fuller Victor, a native of Erie, Pennsylvania, was a pioneer in the dime novel tradition, penning more than 100 titles. After the family moved to Ohio, she and her sister Frances began publishing in local newspapers. Her first novel, Last Days of Tul, A Romance of the Lost Cities of Yucatan, was published in 1847 when she was only 15 years old.

After their marriage, she and her husband, Orville Victor, a newspaper editor, moved to New York City. Despite bearing nine children and having the responsibilities of a wife and mother, she continued to work, publishing in many genres as well as poetry, non-fiction and even a few cookbooks.

Her achievement as the writer of the first detective novel is marred by the fact a main character is clairvoyant.

Green’s novel, on the other hand, set the standard for mystery novels to follow. Her detective, Ebenezer Gryce, who serves with the New York Metropolitan Police Force, would continue to fight crime in a series of novels. Gryce is often assisted by Amelia Butterworth, a nosy spinster. Green also invented a ‘girl detective,’ Violet Strange, a debutante who leads a secret life as a sleuth.

Green’s father was a prominent attorney and it is believed some of his cases provided the basis for her plots. The Leavenworth Case sold more than a million copies and was lauded by Wilkie Collins, among other luminaries. The novel also sparked a debate in the Pennsylvania Senate over whether such a book could actually have been written by a woman.


Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie were among later authors who acknowledged her influence on their work. Not a bad legacy, even if her own work is not known as well as it should be these days.

17 comments:

  1. Excellent information! Thanks, John.

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  2. I discovered Anna Katherine Green not long ago, but didn't know much about her. Fascinating story, John.

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    1. The old-fashioned prose may not suit modern readers, but she was definitely a trail-blazer.

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  3. You have enlightened me, John. Thanks for posting this information.

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  4. Most interesting, John. I had never heard of these ladies.

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  5. I wish more of historical nuggets, like this, could be included in school curricula. It would make history seem more alive, and it might inspire girls especially. Thank you.

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  6. Very interesting information. Thanks for sharing.

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  7. I had no idea. Never heard of either one of them. Thanks for bringing their names to light!

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  8. Thanks for bringing this out, John. Jan Christensen told me she was the first. Now I know the truth. Seriously, this was most interesting. Now I'm curious to read a sample of their work.

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  9. Thanks for bringing this out, John. Jan Christensen told me she was the first. Now I know the truth. Seriously, this was most interesting. Now I'm curious to read a sample of their work.

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  10. I'm not sure of Jan's reaction, Earl, but I like your comment. Some of Green's work is available free for Kindle at http://www.amazon.com/s/?ie=UTF8&keywords=free+anna+katharine+green&tag=googhydr-20&index=digital-text&hvadid=35078098284&hvpos=1o1&hvexid=&hvnetw=g&hvrand=10458130152447161197&hvpone=&hvptwo=&hvqmt=b&hvdev=c&ref=pd_sl_89rf4unm85_b

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  11. John, this was very interesting. I will share on social media. We had a session on detective fiction as PSWA a couple of years ago. Love that stuff!

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