Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. It can be both interesting and useful to take a look at early crime fiction. After all, the genre as we know it now has its roots in those early stories. So let’s turn today’s spotlight on one such example: Anna Katherine Green’s The Golden Slipper and Other Problems for Violet Strange, first published in 1915.
This is a collection of nine short stories featuring New York debutante Violet Strange. As you might expect, given the times, her father wants her to marry and settle into life as a wealthy New York aristocrat. Violet, though, has another interest. She is secretly employed as a private investigator. Her mysterious employer sends her the information needed to solve cases; Violet uses her social status, her deductive abilities and her intelligence to solve them.
In the first story, The Golden Slipper, she gets to know a high-society clique of young women calling itself ‘The Inseparables.’ When one of them has a valuable jewel stolen, Violet lays an ingenious trap to catch the thief. The Second Bullet features the tragic deaths of a young father and his daughter. His widow, who claims to have had nothing to do with the deaths, needs the money from his life insurance. It’s up to Violet to prove what really happened, so as to clear the widow’s name. In An Intangible Clue, the strange murder of a seemingly harmless old woman leads Violet to use several ‘tricks of the trade’ to get the witness statements she needs to find out who killed the victim and why. The Grotto Spectre is the story of the sad history of the Upjohn family. When the body of Roger Upjohn’s wife is discovered, he begs Violet to solve the case, so as to give him and his father some peace. Violet is hired to find a missing will in The Dreaming Lady; and in The House of Clocks, she uncovers a dark secret from the past to help free a young woman from a life of as more or less a domestic slave. The Doctor, His Wife, and the Clock is the story of the unsolved shooting murder of wealthy and influential Mr. Hasbrouk. Is blind Dr. Zabrieski, who confesses to the crime, guilty? Or is there more to this case? Missing: Page Thirteen concerns the disappearance of a crucial page in an important academic paper. And Violet’s Own is a different, more personal kind of mystery for Violet.
One of the important elements in this collection is the portrait it gives of New York society life in the early years of World War I. Violet Strange is a ‘blueblood,’ so she mixes with the social leaders. She has a full slate of musicales, teas and other social events, more than once using them as pretexts for investigating and following leads. Think ‘Mrs. Astor’s 400,’ and you’ll have a solid idea of the lifestyle shown in many of these stories. Along with this, Green depicts the social structure of the times. There are very distinct class divisions, and those who are in the ‘service’ class know their places, if I may put it that way.
There are also distinct gender-based differences as well that are very apparent in these stories. To give just one example, The Second Bullet concerns the death of George Hammond and his child. He didn’t have very much, so when he dies, his wife is left near penniless. Without the proceeds from his life insurance policy, she’ll have no other means; in that place, at that time, this was a very precarious position for a woman. There are other examples too of the different societal expectations for men and for women, even among the wealthy.
And that’s a good part of the reason for which Violet hides her profession from her father (although her brother Arthur knows the truth). Violet isn’t expected to ‘dirty her hands’ with crime and detection. And there are plenty of people who don’t expect a woman to have the deductive skills to solve crimes. Violet’s father is doing his job as a father (given the tenor of the times) to want a good match for his daughter and see her married well.
For her part, Violet is, to an extent, a product of her times and social class. She is accustomed to wealth and status, although she’s not arrogant or supercilious. She has no burning desire to take up women’s suffrage or other feminist causes. She doesn’t really want to have her own business or try to best the men at their own game. In fact, she’s somewhat reluctant to take on the cases she’s asked to investigate.
At the same time, Violet is both intelligent and curious, with solid deduction skills. She also has pride and dignity, so there’s an element of satisfaction in solving crimes. Like all of us, she makes mistakes. But she has the makings of a fine, fine detective, and her employer knows that she can’t long resist an intriguing puzzle. She also uses quick thinking, verbal subterfuge, and even the ‘I’m just a woman’ ploy to get the answers she needs.
Violet is skilled at solving intellectual puzzles, and that’s what these stories are. Readers who like such mysteries will be pleased. There are ‘impossible’ disappearances, murders that are hard to explain, missing bullets, and more. Several of them are along the lines of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, and Violet uses similar deduction. That said though, readers who expect these to be ‘just like the Holmes stories’ will be disappointed. Violet is a very different character.
We learn the truth about each case. But that doesn’t make everything all right again. Some of these stories are very sad, and Green doesn’t try to sugarcoat what happens. That said though, there isn’t very much violence in the novels. The sadness comes from the effect on those left involved in the crimes. Violet is keenly aware of that sadness, too, and frequently shows compassion (‘though not muddle-headed sentiment) for victims and their families.
The Golden Slipper and Other Problems for Violet Strange is a look into the world of New York in the early Twentieth Century. It features a young woman who in many ways is the wealthy, privileged debutante she appears to be, but who has an intriguing secret life. The mysteries are intellectual more than psychological, and invite readers to make deductions from sometimes very odd clues. But what’s your view? Have you read The Golden Slipper and Other Problems for Violet Strange? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 15 June/Tuesday 16 June – The Harbour Master – Daniel Pembrey
Monday 22 June/Tuesday 23 June – Simon Said – Sarah R. Shaber
Monday 29 June/Tuesday 30 June – Call For the Dead – John le Carré