“Though I have had no adventures, I feel capable of them, and as for any peculiar acumen he may have shown in his long and eventful career, why that is a quality which others may share with him, as I hope to be able to prove before finishing these pages.”
There are those who believe Amelia Butterworth is a meddlesome old maid. Among them are her neighbors, the Van Burnams. But it’s hardly Miss Butterworth’s fault that she happened to glance out her window one night just as a man and woman entered the Van Burnam house. Knowing the family is away in Europe, it would be irresponsible not to notify police the next morning. And when the supposedly empty house turns out to contain a dead body, it’s her clear duty to investigate.
Mr. Gryce of the police department is happy to indulge a lady’s fancies. What harm will it do to let Miss Butterworth believe they are rival investigators? Little does he realize how formidable a lady detective can be. “This aged detective is used to women, I have no doubt,” Miss Butterworth gloats, “but he is not used to me.”
That Affair Next Door is a fitting debut for the Library of Congress Crime Classics series, as it is likely the first American novel to feature a female detective. In fact, Anna Katharine Green is known as the mother of detective fiction. Her earlier works featured male sleuths, including Ebenezar Gryce, who also plays a significant role in That Affair Next Door. But it’s Miss Amelia Butterworth who steals the show here—not only the first, but one of the best spinster detectives. Though this is a tight story by nineteenth-century standards, modern readers may find it wordy and melodramatic. Whenever Miss Butterworth takes center stage, however, the narrative lives and breathes.
The young woman who lies dead in the Van Burnam house has seemingly met her death by misadventure after knocking a china cabinet down upon herself, smashing her face beyond recognition. Yet it is clear to both Gryce and Butterworth that there is more to the case. The two adult sons of the house, Howard and Franklin Van Burnam, were both in New York at the time of the murder, neither of them able to explain their strange activities. They staunchly insist they have no idea who the dead woman is. Even the finest families have their secrets, however, and no one is better placed to discover them than Amelia Butterworth. She coolly assures Gryce:
“You need not trouble yourself to show me too much politeness. If I meddle in this matter at all it will not be as your coadjutor, but as your rival.”
“Yes, your rival; and rivals are never good friends until one of them is hopelessly defeated.”
As they struggle to identify the dead woman and her killer, the two detectives embark upon a competition that is light-hearted on Gryce’s side, but deadly serious for Miss Butterworth. Though she declares, “I am clever and am not ashamed to own it,” she can also be opinionated and interfering, which has not won her many friends. She has been bored for most of her life. To succeed in the investigation, Miss Butterworth must learn how to moderate her worst impulses while retaining her own capable nature. In the process, she discovers her life’s work.
I had not known up to this very hour that I had any special gifts. My father, who was a shrewd man of the old New England type, said more times than I am years old (which was not saying it as often as some may think) that Araminta (the name I was christened by, and the name you will find in the Bible record, though I sign myself Amelia, and insist upon being addressed as Amelia, being, as I hope, a sensible woman and not the piece of antiquated sentimentality suggested by the former cognomen)—that Araminta would live to make her mark; though in what capacity he never informed me, being, as I have observed, a shrewd man, and thus not likely to thoughtlessly commit himself.
The investigation is steeped in fascinating details of life in gilded-age Manhattan, as the indomitable Miss Butterworth charges through genteel parlors, grubby curio shops, and Chinese laundries in search of clues. Everyone she meets is subject to her withering judgment.
Much depends upon subtle details of dress that are less obvious to a male detective; even the unfashionable Miss Butterworth knows that the dead woman, soberly dressed in ready-made clothing, could not be the same woman who owned the expensive and flamboyant couture hat found in the closet. If that is the case, however, what happened to the victim’s own hat? (The idea that she might not have worn one is too horrifying to contemplate. Even the landlady of a boarding house insists, “if she had had no hat on, she wouldn’t have got as far as my parlor mat.”)
The smallest nuances of costume, manner, and appearance are dissected in light of nineteenth-century customs, most of them explained well enough to be understood even by those who may not remember the 1890s too well. Inevitably, some references will be lost on the modern reader, but it’s usually easy enough to get the idea. Miss Butterworth insists that her “puff” hairstyle is both stylish and becoming, for instance, but the dubious way everyone else refers to the puffs suggests that they are a long way from the height of fashion.
Since this is a high-society murder, issues of social class are front and center, sometimes presented in a way that seems shockingly blunt. One reason the fashion clues are so important is that they are assumed to reveal the social position of the wearer. The investigators are examining the quality and prices of the garments, but there is a difference between having money and being a lady. That hat in the closet is costly and beautifully made, but no lady would wear such a garish item. The victim’s clothing comes from an upscale department store, but no lady would wear a ready-made dress. Though Miss Butterworth is more of an all-purpose cynic than a snob in the traditional sense, she is finely attuned to what is done and what is not done in old New York families. The Van Burnam case seems strange to her from the start because so much of it does not align with what she would expect from such a family. Is this a clue in itself, or simply a sign that old money can behave just as badly as anyone else?
The mystery is wonderfully complicated. After a certain point in the story, it’s easy to identify the culprit, but harder to guess exactly what happened. There are a lot of small moving parts, each of which fits into its proper place by the end. Interestingly, Mr. Gryce and Miss Butterworth are both shown going about their rounds and, though they are moving in different directions, their solutions seem equally plausible. Neither comes off as buffoonish—they are both doing serious and credible work. Since for Gryce the work is what really matters, he’s able to put his ego aside when he makes a mistake, delighted by all the new possibilities Miss Butterworth is presenting.
Beautiful! I don’t know of anything more interesting! We have not seen the like in years! I can almost congratulate myself upon my mistakes, the features of the case they have brought out are so fine!
For Miss Butterworth, the stakes of their competition are much higher. She relishes the thrill of the chase without ever forgetting that she must show Gryce what female detectives—and Miss Amelia Butterworth in particular—can achieve.
“I never enjoyed myself so much in my whole life,” says Miss Butterworth after delivering her solution. While I wouldn’t go that far myself, That Affair Next Door is a well-crafted gaslight detective story that paints a striking portrait of turn-of-the-century New York City. Amelia Butterworth is the real treasure, though, a heroine who is almost too modern for the book she finds herself in.
Some would say that Green purposefully bases her novel upon the actions of a spinster in order to subvert society’s expectations of her; ironically, the woman who is isolated in Victorian society and is effectively good for nothing is the one who solves the case. This in turn reveals to the reader the poor treatment of the spinster in that time period, and instead points the finger of ridicule at the community who takes her for granted. The stereotypical opinion of the ‘old maid’ is dismissed within this novel and I feel this is what makes it so compelling. Granted, a re-reading of this story will not evoke surprise at the outcome, but I believe that it is worth re-visiting Miss Butterworth again in order to observe her development as a strong-willed character in literature; she is a woman who will not accept defeat. Many people see Amelia as a joke, but she is the main character of her own novel and inevitably has the last laugh – a satisfying conclusion where the little old lady outsmarts all of the professional men.
That Affair Next Door has just been reissued by the Library of Congress Crime Classics through Poisoned Pen Press. It is also in print from Duke University Press as part of a double volume with Amelia Butterworth’s second adventure, Lost Man’s Lane. This title is also in the public domain.