The Leavenworth Case Redux

June 17, 2010

It really is pretty.

It’s difficult to know how to write this, because I’ve already read and written about The Leavenworth Case, and, as you may recall, I didn’t like it very much. But last month at BookBloggerCon, when it seemed sometimes like all anyone wanted to talk about was the art of acquiring review copies, I kept thinking about it.

I’d seen on The Bunburyist that Penguin had just put out a new edition of The Leavenworth Case, and that the cover was really attractive. So I guess it was a little bit because of the cover art, and a little bit because I felt like the book was worth revisiting, and a little bit because I wanted to see if someone would really send me a review copy, when all I’ve done in the past is recommend etexts.

Well, they did, and I read the book again, and I realized that I really hadn’t done it justice the first time around. But I feel funny about it, because I’m not altogether sure whether the nice things I want to say about the book are entirely due to the book itself, or whether the fact that I just asked for the book and Penguin sent it to me pretty much right away is having more of an effect on me than I’d like.

So, again, this is the story of what happens after wealthy retiree Horatio Leavenworth is shot in his study one night. It’s also about a young lawyer, Everett Raymond, and his fascination with Mr. Leavenworth’s nieces, Mary and Eleanore.

I really did like the book better this time, and I’ve come up with two probable reasons for that. One is the introduction by Michael Sims. The other is the fact that I wasn’t constantly comparing Anna Katherine Green to Carolyn Wells. The latter allowed me to judge the books on its own merits, while the former gave me things to look out for, like the clever pacing and Mr. Gryce’s qualities as an early fictional detective. Also, I think Mr. Sims genuinely likes the book, and his enthusiasm really came through, which…well, doesn’t always happen. So that was nice.

I think that I was annoyed by pretty much every single character the first time I read The Leavenworth Case. I still loathe Everett Raymond more than one should loathe a character in a book one doesn’t have any other particularly strong feelings about. He may be the first lawyer-narrator in a mystery novel, and Mr. Sims may like him, but I really, really don’t.

I think about authorial intention a lot. Just, you know, in genaral. I believe that there can be a lot more in a work than its author consciously put there, and that the author has no right to dictate how the work is read once it has left his or her hands. And I’m often aware, especially with the kind of books I write about here, that I am seeing things that the author didn’t see. For example, I’m pretty sure Edward Stratemeyer didn’t mean to write Tom Rover as a sociopath, but that isn’t going to stop me from firmly believing that he is one.

With other authors, it’s more complicated, and while it doesn’t really matter if what I’m seeing was something the author meant me to see, I always wonder anyway.

I’m on the fence about Green. I want to know if she meant Raymond’s inability to picture a good-looking murderer to be a virtue or a flaw. And in general, I feel like several of the characters are a little more complex than she meant them to be. The most interesting of these is Mary Leavenworth. I don’t think I like her much as a person, but she’s kind of a great character. She’s the selfish, weak-willed one, but she’s so beautiful that most people can’t seem to believe she has any flaws. Mary knows her own flaws pretty well, but won’t take responsibility for them — her selfish nature is the fault of the wealth that has always surrounded her, and her cowardly actions are the fault of her weak will. These are pretty terrible excuses — basically she’s saying that it’s not her fault if she does bad things, because she’s a bad person, which, you know, makes no sense. But I kind of like that she thinks that way.

I also liked Mr. Gryce, who is a collection of typical detective-y quirks written before they were typical detective-y quirks. My favorite — and, I suppose, the most obvious — is that he never looks directly at people, instead focusing on apparently insignificant objects. It’s sort of mysterious and impressive and funny at the same time, and Green uses the humor to good effect. Mr. Gryce spends a lot of time glaring at doorknobs and stuff.

I also really, really liked that Gryce could be wrong. He’s a lot smarter and a lot more detached than Raymond, but he’s also not infallible, and that’s — well, not a trait that became typical, sadly.

I’m still sort of frustrated by the book, but I think I’ve become reconciled to that. I’m glad I read it again.

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