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A Primer in Late 19th- & Early 20th-Century Detective Fiction

October 23, 2008

Textbook publishers Wadsworth Cengage Learning have a 2009 collection that offers a quick survey of some American writers once popular in and even influential to the genre of detective fiction but now perhaps largely neglected — and also offers a new look at at least one writer undersung both during her own lifetime and up through recent history. The booklet-sized anthology — titled (thrillingly!) Theme 12: Crime, Mystery, and Detection — is part of the new publishing project The Wadsworth Themes in American Literature Series, which includes 20 other such booklets, together presenting a broad view of major themes in American literature from 1492 to the present. The innovation here: Instead of a student (or any reader) having to purchase an unwieldy textbook (or even series of textbooks in this case), the individual “themes” can be bought and enjoyed independent of others — attractive, affordable and even book-bag friendly.

It’s easy for those of us occasionally teaching American detective fiction to assign a couple of Poe’s Dupin stories and then make a broad jump up to 20th-century literature: Hammett, Chandler, and so on to the present. I’ve done that myself. But this collection urges us to revisit the immediately post-Poe period in new ways, with works including one of the “Violet Strange” stories by Anna Katherine Green (traditionally credited with writing the first American detective novel, 1878’s The Leavenworth Case); one of Melville Davisson Post’s extremely popular “Uncle Abner” tales from the Saturday Evening Post;  and the tongue-in-cheek story “The Stolen White Elephant” by Mark Twain. Beyond these “big” names in detective fiction (at least two of which most modern days readers, even mystery fans, might scarcely recognize), the slim collection also explores more diverse writers, including African American author Pauline Hopkins, whose writings for the Colored American Magazine often sought to “transform popular fictional forms into vehicles of social protest,” and Maria Cristina Mena, who immigrated from Mexico to the U.S. just after the turn of the century and whose writings are only now being reexamined more fully as part of the Recovering the U.S. Hispanic Heritage Project of Arte Publico Press.

These stories and other works by these writers are not entirely unavailable elsewhere; for example, Project Gutenberg’s Online Book Catalog has a wide selection of Anna Katherine Green’s writings available online with just a click of the mouse. But despite its modest size, this booklet strikes me as important for calling greater attention to these writers among the general reading public and encouraging the teaching of these works in the college classroom. I’ll add it to my own syllabus next time I get the chance.

— Art Taylor

P.S. Coincidentally — and not seen until after I posted this — another critic was also writing about early American detective fiction yesterday, not only in blog but in the bigger world

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