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Among American writers of mystery novels, few have surpassed Anna Katharine Green in the quality of their work or in the wide-spread response they have evoked. A generation ago she was keeping her thousands reading into the early morning hours with her tales of crime and terror; a generation ago she was in the forefront of popular American writers, and her name on the title-page of a book was regarded as a guaranty of a swift-moving plot, hair-raising suspense, and engrossing entertainment. Beginning with "The Leavenworth Case," which won her a reputation, and which is still regarded as among the best of her works, she turned out no less than thirty books in steady succession; but so careful was she to maintain her standard that, as a recent editorial writer has remarked, "it is certain that her readers could stand thirty more."
When it is remembered that "The Leavenworth Case" first appeared so long ago as 1878, it will be recognized that Anna Katharine Green is one of the oldest of living authors. On November 11 of this year she will reach the respectable age of eighty. And, shortly before qualifying as an octogenarian, she will have had the pleasure of seeing the reissue of one of her early successes, "Hand and Ring"—a book which will in due time be followed by the reappearance of others of her thrillers, most of which are now out of print and unobtainable even in second-hand copies.
It is particularly appropriate that "Hand and Ring" should be the first of her books to be reset, not only because it is one of her best, but because the circumstances of its original appearance were peculiar, and the novel has never before been made public in the form the author desired. It seems that when she wrote the book she was the victim of a rush order which was detrimental to her work; for, after she had drafted the three opening chapters, Leslie's Weekly sent in a request for a serial by return mail, and at the same time the Putnams indicated that they should like a book supplied them instantaneously. And, being an obliging woman, what was the author to do? The chapters that were half ready were delivered forthwith to Leslie's; the galley-proof was hurried to Putnam; the novelist took up her pen, and began to make it race across the pages at lightning speed. But the effort was too much for human endurance. Finally, the author found herself in the impossible position of working on three parts of her story at once, while incidentally correcting proof for both publishers; and under this strain she broke down, as a result of which the Leslie presses had to be held and the compositors had to stand ready to work day and night when at last the copy arrived. But tho eventually the story was completed, it suffered from its incubator method of production; for this reason the author has seen fit to revise it, so that the present version can lay claim to being the only really finished one that has ever appeared.
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A perusal of the story will suffice to convince one that the author was not ill-advised in salvaging it. Certainly there are few of the arts of the detective tale which she has not mastered! Yet in the selection of her theme she has shown no particular originality, and the plot, tho highly elaborated, does not differ in essence from the plot of many another murder mystery; it is in the assembling and the treatment of her material that she displays her superiority.
It is interesting to read some of Anna Katharine Green's comments on her own work. She says, for example, that the story she wanted to tell in "Hand and Ring" occupied her mind for three years—and that how to tell it came to her "over night." "The idea that haunted me so long," she recently told a friend, "suddenly resolved itself into what I was waiting for, namely, how to tell it, make it presentable; that is, making the arrangement of the sequence of events effective. It proved to be a very complicated plot, but no one could have advised me how the story should be told. Somehow, a writer is guided or driven to tell a story, but the downright means of the guidance is a mystery to me after many years of work."
Anna Katharine Green appears to have been born with the faculty of story-telling. When she was six, she found an audience of two by telling stories to herself and to her doll; and she herself has never been able to fathom why as a child she dreamt stories, or why as a young girl she wrote them. But what she does know is that all her childish dreams "have in the course of time been realized"; and she suspects, therefore, that "there is a closer relationship between the child's dream and the woman's accomplishment than philosophy can find out." Yet it is noteworthy that originally she desired fame less as a novelist than as a poet; that she looked upon her first novel largely as a means of paving the way for her poetry; that subsequently her verse was well received, but only following the success of her fiction; and that, finding the narrative gift, to be dominant in her, she was not long in abandoning the Muse in favor of the sleuth.
Yet—and here again we meet with one of those many paradoxes connected with the name of Anna Katharine Green—she has never met a living detective, in spite of all her preoccupation with detective tales; and, in spite of the vividness with which she can create scenes of bloodshed and horror, she has known as little of crimes and criminals, thrills and peril, as any quiet, home-loving woman. She has, indeed, led a tranquil domestic life, having been married for many years to Charles Rohlfs of Buffalo, and being the mother of two sons and a daughter. The only real thrill she can recall is when as a girl she came face to face with Ralph Waldo Emerson; but this was a different sort of thrill.
Now, in the evening of her career, she is no longer engaged in producing new books, altho she is occupied in scrupulously revising her old ones. After all, thirty books are not a poor life's work for any author—even if one's standards be sheerly quantitative. And from the process of revision, curiously enough, she derives a great deal of satisfaction. Having created a book, she becomes after a while as tho a stranger to it; consequently, she can assume a certain aloofness and impartiality in making changes. Listen, for example, to her confession regarding the novel we have been discussing:
When I reread "Hand and Ring" for revision, I was astonished to find so much that had gone out of my recollection, and the book was correspondingly interesting to me. In fact, I was repeatedly led away from the purpose of the rereading, becoming lost in the maze and tangle of the story, for the time unconscious of the fact that I had written it. When really awake to the undertaking, I found passages that were surprizes to me. Bad ones and more than that. Good ones and better than that. The former were eliminated, and the latter retained. The plot was left as it was originally conceived.
No doubt those who enjoyed "Hand and Ring" many years ago will find a pleasure equaling the author's own in reperusing the book. And for those who have not read it, there will be hours of excitement in store.
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