Thursday, 5 July 2012

BOOK REVIEW

The Doctor, his Wife, and the Clock 
by Anna Katharine Green (1895)

This novella is my contribution to Friday’s Forgotten Books meme over at Patti Abbott’s blog Pattinase. Hop over and check out the fine mix of reviews by other book lovers.

“God! What have I done!” 

Last evening, I spent a pleasant one hour reading The Doctor, his Wife, and the Clock, a 50-page novella by American poet and novelist Anna Katharine Green who is regarded as one of the earliest writers of detective stories. She introduced her now little-known detective, Inspector Ebenezer Gryce of the New York Metropolitan Police Force, in The Leavenworth Case in 1878, well before his more famous counterparts Sherlock Holmes came to life in A Study in Scarlet (1887) and Hercule Poirot made his debut in The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920).

In The Doctor, his Wife, and the Clock, which I read as an ebook on my desktop, Ebenezer Gryce is a young, energetic and determined police detective who is entrusted with the investigation of the high-profile murder of Mr. Hasbrouck, a wealthy and influential resident of the Colonnade in Lafayette Place. The murder creates a stir in the neighbourhood as men and women peer out of their windows and doorways and gather in small groups to talk about the crime and who might have committed it.

After his customary interrogation of Mr. Hasbrouck’s family, consisting of his wife and three servants, Ebenezer Gryce steps out onto the balcony and looks at the people gathered below, when he spots an attractive woman holding on to her husband who matches her good looks. The seemingly devout couple, he discovers, are Doctor Constant Zabriskie, a blind but highly skilled doctor, and his wife, the very graceful Helen Zabriskie. He also finds out that Hasbrouck and Zabriskie were not just neighbours but also esteemed friends.

Inspector Ebenezer Gryce’s investigations lead him to the house of the Zabriskies where he meets Helen, apprehensive in her bearing, and Constant, who is so agitated as to confess outright that it was he who killed his dear old friend. The dutiful wife, in a desperate effort to save her husband, pronounces his confession as the rambling of a blind man with an unsettled mind. She insists that her husband is hallucinating and is taking responsibility for Mr. Hasbrouck’s unaccountable death. The doctor is equally adamant and implores the inspector to take him in rather than be certified as a mad man.
 

Anna Katharine Green
“No, no, it is false! I will never believe that your hands have been plunged in blood. You are my own pure-hearted Constant, cold, perhaps, and stern, but with no guilt upon your conscience, save in your own wild imagination.”

Stricken by guilt, Doctor Zabriskie makes an unexpected offer to Inspector Gryce and his superiors at the New York Metropolitan Police Force, a proposition that causes further anguish to Helen, even as experts judge him insane and incapable of shooting anyone. To prove his sharp skills with a pistol, even in his blind condition, and show that he is as sane as the rest of them, the doctor offers to shoot at a clock no sooner it strikes five.

“Can you shoot a man dead without seeing him?” asked the Superintendent, with painful effort.

“Give me a pistol and I will show you,” was the quick reply.


The blind doctor hears the clock go off, turns and fires, except it’s the wrong clock, held by his wife and set to go off a full minute before the one he was supposed to fire at, to prove his sanity and his capability with a gun. Helen dies on the spot but not before telling her husband that she could never have survived the proof that he had, unwittingly, killed Mr. Hasbrouck.

Inspector Ebenezer Gryce suspected the truth behind the murder long before this tragic turn of events. Doctor Zabriskie, it seems, loved his wife deeply but was also insanely jealous. Suspecting Helen of having an affair, he returns home one night with the explicit purpose of shooting her mysterious lover. In spite of his blindness, the doctor never misses his doorstep but that night he does and stops at the next door…that of Mr. Hasbrouck.

“Am I not correct in my surmises, Dr. Zabriskie, and is not this the true explanation of your crime?”

With a strange look, he lifted up his face. “Hush!” said he, “You will awaken her. See how peacefully she sleeps! I should not like to have her awakened now, she is so tired, and I…I have not watched over her as I should.”


This may seem like one spoiler too many but there is more to this fascinating story.

The Doctor, his Wife, and the Clock is only the first of forty books by Anna Katharine Green I have read and I am already willing to certify that she is the original queen of detective fiction. She tells a captivating story in a simple and lucid style even as she astounds the reader with her rich and flawless narrative. There is an old charm to her writing reminiscent of the period she lived and wrote in.

Green has an uncanny eye for detail, particularly legalese, which she may have inherited from her father, a defence lawyer from Brooklyn, New York. Her characters, though just three in number, have depth and are entirely convincing. For instance, Green’s characterisation of the blind and intelligent doctor, Constant Zabriskie, and his lovely wife Helen Zabriskie is so real they seem to come alive through the pages, as if you were watching them play out their emotional drama on screen. 

Inspector Ebenezer Gryce, on the other hand, is an excellent specimen of a detective who, I have no doubt, influenced fictional sleuths of the future. He is a clever and calm-headed detective who holds on to the case till he has solved it. He goes about solving Mr. Hasbrouck’s murder with precision and in the absence of clues because there aren’t any. The mystery unfolds as you read. He is described as “eccentric” though I did not find him peculiar in any way. In fact, Gryce is portrayed as sensitive and considerate, especially towards Helen for whom he has a deep admiration. He sympathises with her plight and tells her, rather quietly, that he is her friend. This is his story and he recounts it as a spectator in spite of being at the heart of the mystery.

The Doctor, his Wife, and the Clock is a superb piece of fiction by Anna Katharine Green and one of the best short novels I have read in recent times. I intend to read her other books most of which are available online legally.

12 comments:

  1. A new author and a new title as well for me. Thank you for the post specially the bit about it being available online!

    ReplyDelete
  2. I think I have THE LEAVENWORTH CASE on my shelves (somewhere) but that really is about it - you certainly make it sound like she could pack a lot into a 50-page narrative Prashant. Once I invest in an e-reader I'll track this one down.

    Cheers,
    Sergio

    ReplyDelete
  3. That title certainly doesn't make me want to read it, but I guess that was true of many titles in those days. I guess I'm too much a pulp hack.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I've read THE FILIGREE BALL with its ingenious death trap worthy of John Dickson Carr or John Rhodes and THE MYSTERY OF THE HASTY ARROW which has a quasi-impossible crime a murder by a bow and arrow in an open corridor in a museum populated by several tourists. Both well worthwhile. Probably both are available online somewhere. THE FILIGREE BALL tends to pop up quite often at cheap prices in used bookshops over here.

    ReplyDelete
  5. This one is interesting because Green apparently re-worked it to be included in her 1915 collection, The Golden Slipper and Other Problems for Violet Strange. Violet Strange was a society debutante who secretly assisted an unnamed private detective—I'm thinking it could have been Mr. Gryce—in delicate situations where only a woman of her standing could go, usually cases involving other women or the elite of society. I'd like to read this version and compare the two—your review sounds very close to the one I read, excepting the addition of Violet.

    Anna Katharine Green has become a favorite of mine—aside from the mysteries themselves, I love the period flavor. My favorite is probably That Affair Next Door, which introduced spinster detective Miss Amelia Butterworth, one of her most entertaining characters. She assisted Ebenezer Gryce in three books.

    ReplyDelete
  6. It's surprising the quality of storytelling that shows up in these dust-covered volumes by often forgotten authors. This one makes me think of a well-written western mystery, THE GREAT K AND A ROBBERY (1897), by a contemporary writer, Paul Leicester Ford. Ford himself was shot dead in mid-career by his brother; living longer, he might have tried his hand again at crime fiction.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Mystica, same here. I had heard of Anna Katharine Green but never read anything by her. I like her style of writing and telling of the story. I hope you get to read some of her books soon.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Sergio, I have heard much about THE LEAVENWORTH CASE and it will probably be next on my to-be-read list of AKG books. She does pack a lot in a short novel though I think she has also written full-length novels. I don't have an e-reader and the reason I'm not too keen on buying one now is because of the number of books I already have in my cabinet, not to mention the ebooks I have downloaded on my hard-disk. I'm comfortable reading them via Kindle for PC or as a pdf file.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Charles, I agree, the title sounds like it's a fairy tale and it wasn't the reason I read this book. I had heard a lot about Anna Katharine Green and wanted to read something by her. This ebook was handy. One of these days I'm going to read and write about a pulp fiction novel — it's been on my mind for a while.

    ReplyDelete
  10. John, thanks very much for writing. I have the ebooks of both the titles you mention though I haven't got round to reading them yet. The mysteries, as you describe them, sound interesting and I'm sure they will be worth reading. I have yet to come across hard copies of her books out here though I don't many Indians would have even heard of her.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Elisabeth, thank you very much for writing. I didn't know Anna Katharine Green had "reworked" this story for the collection you mention. Indeed, it would be interesting to compare the two versions, with and without Violet Strange. I guess her inclusion as a secret assitant to Ebenezer Gryce (possibly) should liven up the mystery. I came across Miss Amelia Butterworth while reading about Green's characters and wondered if she was an inspiration for Agatha Christie's Miss Marple. I'll read the three books to find out if she was.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Ron, looking for books by forgotten authors like Anna Katharine Green or Paul Leicester Ford, whom I had never heard of till you mentioned him, has become a delightful pastime with me. I discover new writers every week though it's near impossible to start reading all of them at once. At least, I'm aware of them and their literary works. I checked up on Ford and found the book you mentioned as well as others including non-fiction. I have added him to my list of books to be read from now until past my retirement.

    ReplyDelete