I have really been enjoying the The Golden Age Girls challenge, one of the challenge levels in Bev’s Vintage Mystery Challenge at My Reader’s Block. And considering I joined that one late, I’m making pretty good progress so far. Partly that’s because I love having a mystery on my Kindle, so I can sneak a few pages in while I’m waiting for children at activities, or waiting for the pressure cooker to de-pressurize, or waiting for a doctor/dentist/hair appointment.* But my idea to read 5 different vintage authors made the Kindle a liability. Neither the Ngaio Marsh nor the Phoebe Atwood Taylor titles I wanted were available for Kindle. My search finally lead me to The Classic Mystery Collection, more than 100 complete mystery novels in one Kindle title. And the list of authors included two vintage authors I had never read: Anna Katharine Green and Mary Roberts Rinehart. And the price? $2.99!**
I began with Green’s The Mill Mystery. Written in 1886, I would not call this a “detective” story – even an amateur detective story. The book is more mysterious than mystery, following Constance Sterling slowly piece together the reasons behind the seemingly unrelated deaths of a popular local minister and the richest man in town. When we meet Constance, she is “a young woman of twenty-five, without home, relatives, or means of support, having in her pocket seventy-five cents of change, and in her breast a heart like lead, so utterly had every hope vanished in the day’s rush of disappointments.” Before Constance’s kind and gentle roommate, the secret fiancée of the minister, dies within hours of hearing the news of his death, she begs Constance to clear her fiancée’s name from the inevitable rumors of suicide that will flow from his drowning in a vat at the abandoned mill.
The reason that I say the book is more “mysterious” than “mystery” is that Constance doesn’t actively set out to deduce a solution to the mystery. Most of the answer simply falls into her lap, in the form of an extraordinarily detailed letter. She did ferret out some of the details, but I think the long letter device was weak, and made the story look particularly antiquated. The book has some other problems from my personal perspective. There’s way too much Victorian feminine fragility for my taste – in fact, it’s the device that moves the main story along. The love story is rather predictable – once I was able to tell the two Pollard brothers apart, I was pretty sure who the “good” guy was.
So The Mill Mystery is a truly “vintage” title, more reminiscent of Wilkie Collins’ work than a classic Agatha Christie whodunit. It does have the virtue of being a very early mystery work by a female writer who was a best-seller during her own lifetime, and it certainly gives you an idea of how the mystery genre has developed since the Victorian era. In fairness, Green’s most famous work is The Leavenworth Case, and I probably should have started there. Still, if you loved The Woman in White, this might be up your alley.
Thanks again to Bev for hosting The Vintage Mystery Challenge!
*You get the idea. I do a lot of waiting. As in three books worth of waiting in the past two months.
**I’m going to admit that this is a poorly formatted Kindle title – each book is treated as a “chapter,” so searching is a pain. And I can’t figure out what to do about the “farthest page read” sync when I shift around from book to book. But for $2.99, it’s nice to always have a mystery I haven’t read waiting in the wings!