Monday, July 4, 2011

Musings: The Leavenworth Case

The Leavenworth Case
The Victorians were nothing if not really, really dramatic.  Anna Katharine Green was no exception and her mystery novel, The Leavenworth Case, proves it.  There is Fainting.  There is Swearing Before God.  There are Secret Marriages.  Wild Accusations.  Love at First Sight.  And, of course, 11th Hour Revelations.  A Full Confession.  All those things and many more, and all deserving of mid-sentence capitalization.  And all shared with much more wordiness than necessary.

I must admit that the more I read Victorian literature that was popular with the Victorians, the more I judge them (Yes.  All of them).  They seem, on the whole, a very bizarre bunch prone to monologues and lectures and excessive use of italics and exclamation points.  I find it hard to believe there were many sensible people around in the time period, especially as they all seem to conveniently put their every dastardly thought into writing to be found by someone later on at a key moment.

The Leavenworth Case was not my cup of tea.  It centers around a locked-room murder of a very wealthy man whose name, unsurprisingly, was Leavenworth.  Mr. Leavenworth had two nieces, one of whom would inherit all his money and the other of whom wasn't going to get anything.  There was no real reason for this at all- both nieces were very pretty and seemed very attached to their uncle, but he bizarrely only wanted to give his money to one of them.  What follows is a very complicated (might I say convoluted?) mystery involving many people and a whole lot of partially-burnt pieces of paper (really, you'd think one would be more careful) of trying to determine who killed him.

There were multiple narrative voices in this story:  we have the actual narrator who tells the story, but we also have other characters take on the role of narrator to relate their stories and involvement with the crime.  The thing is, I couldn't tell the difference between any of these narrative voices.  They all sounded the same to me, from dialect to sentence construction to anything else that lends distinction, even though people came from different walks of life and even different countries.  So with that caveat, I was even more lost with the other characters.  It took me a very long time to differentiate between Mr. Leavenworth's nieces, for example.

I also thought the story could do with some editing, but then I often feel that most Victorian novels could do with some editing.  I really dislike the last-minute confession from the villain who then proceeds to tell us his version of the story, explaining every single puzzling detail of the story- it is just sloppily done, in my view, and also seems a bit lazy.  There must be a less bludgeoning way to share the information than that, to integrate it more into the story.  There was also a longer-than-necessary explanation of Mr. Leavenworth's very random hatred of Englishmen.  I don't think this odd characteristic added much at all to the story, and could easily have been tweaked to be taken out without any harm done and at least a few pages removed.  The multiple conversations about and mullings over the exact same clues could have been reduced, too.

I am saying all the bad things, but I do see how this book was engaging to its readers.  The mystery is very complicated and seems to go in many different directions.  Just when you think you've gotten to the end, some other twist comes up.  The detective in the story, Mr. Ebenezer Gryce (was Ebenezer just a really popular name in the Victorian era?!  I don't get it), was also a funny and endearing guy- the only character, really, who stood out to me as an individual.  While I don't think I'll be reading any more of Green's novels, this one was a lesson in patience, and if you are one of those who truly does enjoy Victorian sensibilities and dramatics, then maybe you should give one a go.

22 comments:

  1. Lol, I guess Ebenezer was the big name of that era :)Yes not getting it either

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  2. ah, yes, the joys of that time period... I have never even heard of this author before, though.

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  3. Blodeuedd - Yes, I guess so!

    Kailana - Yes, she's an American author who I don't think is very popular any more, but was popular in that period.

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  4. Yep, I'd echo the first comment, Ebenezer was quite big. I can see why you didn't like it, and the confession sounds dull, yet the way you've described it has me interested, very well written review!

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  5. I have to admit that even though you totally didn't like this book, your review made me giggle because of all the disparate elements that were thrown together. A random hatred of Englishmen, and a lot of burned bits of paper? Hysteria and fainting, and lots of last minute confessions? It sounds so dramatic that it's silly, and I can't imagine that I would enjoy reading it. I did, however, really enjoy this review. It was very captivating and well written. Thanks, Aarti!

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  6. Melodrama and stolen identities and stolen babies and secret vows and all the attendant silliness is exactly why I love the Victorians, wordiness be damned. I totally get why people hate it and I think they are right to do so, but I love it unrelentingly.

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  7. Ha ha! Even if this book wasn't to your tastes, it sure lent itself to a hilarious review! I don't read tons of Victorian fiction, but I admit this one sounds kind of fun, even if it is preposterous!

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  8. Charlie - Haha, well with all the action and drama in it, it would be hard for it to sound boring, I guess!

    Zibilee - I'm glad at least the review was entertaining :-) It is a VERY dramatic book, for sure.

    raych - I can see where the appeal is because really, life seems so... even-keeled now, compared to life in those days ;-)

    Steph - Yes, when I was putting together the plot summary, I wondered how I possibly found it slow going when something happened every page!

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  9. So it's the Victorians we have to blame for villains feeling they always have to monologue and show everyone just how clever they've been, then!

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  10. Hilarious review -- I cracked up, even though I do like AKG. But it's true -- the Victorians really mastered melodrama!

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  11. I don't have much patience with the Victorians, either. Especially the faininting. I just want to scream "get rid of the corset!!" And then slap them.

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  12. But it all sounds so entrancing when you write about it. Locked doors! Indistinguishable characters! Mysteries! Exclamation points! They do tend to go on and on but they didn't have television or the internet to distract them.

    Clearly not liking Englishmen takes some explaining! How unlikely! :)

    Oh, I am so tempted to pick this up although it sounds exactly like the kind of book that intrigues me that I find impossible to finish reading.

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  13. I was giggling helplessly while reading your review because you're like, "This is absurd! What ridiculous people the Victorians were! Down with this book!", and the entire time I was thinking AWESOME YES YES YES AWESOME YES PLEASE AWESOME.

    I recognize all the faults you find in Victorians, but I find them awesome to the point of hysteria (on my part) (probably on theirs as well). They were so, oh gosh, the Victorians, they were just so full of hang-ups and they were all cracked-out crazy, and I feel awfully awfully fond of them. And all the things you listed in the first paragraph sound amazing. Adding this to my list! :D

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  14. Audra - They did! I bet it's because they couldn't breathe in their clothes, so everything seemed dramatic.

    softdrink - Yes, I don't understand WHY corsets were so popular! Though, looking back, they were really quite symbolic of the period and women's roles in particular. But honestly... the fainting and the Swearing Before God just were too much for me. Everyone in the period could have greatly benefited from a chill pill or fifteen.

    Carrie - YES, if anything in the book needed more explanation, it was the dislike of Englishmen! Clearly, AKG had never experienced how SOOTHING the accent really is...

    Jenny - I should have known a trouble-maker like you would not take heed of my words of Dire Warning and would instead, just like a nonsensical Victorian heroine, plunge headfirst into the melodrama that is this novel. Don't say I didn't warn you!

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  15. Ha! I'm definitely with Raych up above. It's the sanctimonious melodrama that makes me love them oh so very much, Fainting and all. In fact, I think I'll have to add this to my list. :)

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  16. I don't know how many times have burnt pieces of paper ave gotten me in trouble. Why I don't make sure they are completely destroyed? Probably because of my fainting spells.
    Maybe these books should be re-written, updated and Jane Austen can be left alone because I do enjoy a good locked-room mystery

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  17. Veronica - Sanctimonious is a great word for it! I'm glad I managed to pique your interest even though this book wasn't for me.

    bookmagic - It's true! Those papers will always come back to haunt you!

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  18. I know you didn't love it but this book still intrigues me, I guess because it's written by a woman. I guess I could try it, especially since it's not very long for a Victorian novel. Hilarious review!

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  19. Haha, the Victorians were famous for their sensation novels! Sounds like it's very similar to the mysteries by Wilkie Collins and Dickens who I admit I have a weakness for, so I'll be checking this one out. Brilliant and hilarious review btw:)

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  20. Sounds like a classic detective novel, perhaps a little more complex. Perfect for a logic lover like me!

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  21. Perhaps all the sensible people were very busy working to survive? I love the cover and you do make it sound fun despite the warnings.

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  22. Well, I did manage to finish it and it was pretty engaging but convoluted does not begin to describe the ultimate murderer! Although I had my suspicions, but not from the clues, I admit.

    Did you read the foreward where this book was a text used in Harvard Law School? (or some Ivy League Law school back in the late 1800's). Evidently it was a fabulous case detailing the failure of circumstantial evidence to catch the perpetrator.

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