In her landmark 1979 book Murderess Ink, Dilys Winn identifies Anna Katharine Green as one of the “founding mothers” of detective fiction, and notes that up until the rediscovery of Seeley Regester’s The Dead Letter (1867), Green was credited with writing the first cozy detective novel, The Leavenworth Case (1878), which introduced many of the characters and plot devices with which we’re familiar today. In two subsequent novels featuring the same detective, Ebenezer Gryce, The Affair Next Door (1897) and Lost Man’s Lane (1898), Green introduced the first spinster detective, Amelia Butterworth, forerunner to Miss Marple, Maud Silver, and others. Then in 1915, Green created a girl detective, debutante Violet Strange, in The Golden Slipper and Other Problems for Violet Strange, a collection of linked stories.
Violet is strange in many ways, the most puzzling of which is her willingness to undertake detective work despite her social status and apparent wealth. The police chief who hires her is compelled to entice her to take a case by engaging her interest, and yet admits that “the consent he had thought dependent upon sympathetic interest could be reached more readily by the promise of a large emolument” (32). When her employer brings her a case that she regards as distasteful, she scolds him, “I should not be asked to touch the sordid or the bloody . . . . What do you see in me, or miss in me, that you should drag me into an atmosphere of low-down crime?” (68). On another occasion, she dictates that a case “must be an interesting one,” and further specifies, “It must not involve death or any kind of horror. If you have a case of subtlety without crime, one to engage my powers without depressing my spirits, I beg you to let me have it” (139). Once when Violet feigns indifference, the wily chief leaves behind an envelope of notes on a case, knowing that her curiosity will induce her to read them; as she dances and socializes that evening, her thoughts are not on her adoring partner, but on the hints that the chief has dropped regarding the case: “A woman difficult to understand! A mysterious house—possibly a mysterious crime!” (187). To add to the puzzle, Violet’s detective work must be kept secret, particularly from her father. We are never told how old she is, but presume that her debut was fairly recent.
Violet specializes in cases involving high society, in which as a debutante she can move freely without blowing her cover. In Problem 1, “The Golden Slipper,” for example, she attends a house party to safeguard a priceless jewel necklace, and then discovers the culprit when the necklace is stolen. In more than one case, in spite of her abhorrence of violence, she clears innocent suspects of murder. In Problem 4, “The Grotto Spectre,” she achieves this end by impersonating the ghost of the murdered woman (as illustrated in the frontispiece above). As this detail suggests, the world in which she moves is a blend of sparkling modernity and Gothic gloom; in a missing will case, she describes the house in which she is staying: “had it been taken bodily from some historic abbey of the old world, it could not have expressed more fully, in structure and ornamentation, the Gothic idea at its best” (154).
Like other girl detectives, including Nancy Drew, Violet Strange is motherless, since it is difficult to pursue adventures with an affectionate and attentive mama hovering about. She has instead, like Nancy, a father, who, however loving toward her, turns out to be the source of Violet’s problems. We learn in Problem 9, “Violet’s Own,” that he has disinherited Violet’s sister, who married her music master and lives in poverty, now a widow. Since the sister is too proud to accept money from any other family member, Violet’s detective career will finance the sister’s further musical training, which will permit her to support herself. Violet explains, “The money I have earned has been immense; since it was the troubles of the rich I was given to settle, and I was almost always successful” (424).
Like Nancy, Violet is privileged in her ability to move about freely, although her chauffeured limousine is both more luxurious and more constraining than the various cars Nancy owns and drives herself. Unlike her predecessors in the dime novels, as a relatively sheltered young lady, Violet cannot travel alone to questionable places; she must take her brother into her confidence and ask him to accompany her on such occasions.
All of this information is presented in the final problem by way of a confession to the man she is about to marry. Yes, dear reader, Violet’s detecting days are over, and we may be disappointed in this conventionally feminine ending. She is not, however, marrying one of the society swains who surround her at balls and house parties and teas, but a rather melancholy man whom she has cleared of charges that he murdered his first wife. With that, I suppose we must rest content. After all, the liberated Twenties are still five years in the future.
To read the full text of The Golden Slipper, click here.