A Difficult Problem: The Staircase at the Heart’s Delight & Other Stories

A Difficult Problem, The Staircase at the Heart's Delight and Other ProblemsA Difficult Problem, The Staircase at the Heart's Delight and Other Problems
by Anna Katherine Green
Rating: ★★★★½
Publication Date: January 1, 1900
Pages: 344
Genre: Fiction, Mystery
Publisher: F.M. Lupton

This is a compilation of half a dozen stories, first collected in this form in 1900 by F. M. Lupton. The stories were originally published between 1894 and 1900.

It was time for some Anna Katherine Green.  I discovered her writing several years ago, and enjoy it so much I have made it my long-term goal to acquire and read everything she published.  She’s sometimes called the “mother of the detective novel”, but she also writes ripping good suspense, gothic, and with The Circular Staircase, originally published in 1900, arguably some amazing early science fiction.

This is my second collection of her short stories; the first one, a collection of the Violet Strange mysteries, failed to thrill me; my first exposure to Violet Strange as a Holmesian private investigator gave me high hopes, but this collection of stories just failed to meet them.  Hence, A Difficult Problem: The Staircase at the Heart’s Delight & Other Stories sat on my TBR for a long time.

This collection, however, turned out to be a delightful mish-mash of varying types, and even the weakest one was good enough to keep me turning the page.

In order of appearance:

A Difficult Problem (4.5 stars):  A mystery, first published in 1900, and Green turns the gender tables, crafting a murder plot that hinges on the deranged need to inflict suffering and revenge at any cost, even to the murderer.  The unveiling of the killer in itself is diabolically clever.  The story is amongst the shortest in the collection, so the psychological impact is necessarily blunted by the truncated length, but short though it may be, it’s also sharply written.

The Grey Madam (4.5 3.5 stars): I rated this one high mostly because it starts out as a ghost story that the narrator is determined to debunk.  It’s not a complicated plot by any stretch, and really no suspense involved once the investigation begins. Actually, the ending is anti-climatic, and a bit of a letdown, really.  So, while I’m remembering it fondly, I’m not sure why I gave it 4.5 stars.  Still, a very well written snippet.

The Bronze Hand (4.5 stars): This one fascinated me.  It’s a well-written tale of secret societies and the whole time I was reading it, I was thinking Green must have read The Valley of Fear.  No, she hadn’t, as it turns out, because she published this in 1897, and the Valley of Fear was published in 1915.  So now I have to wonder, did ACD read The Bronze Hand?  There’s a heavy thread of romance through this story, but otherwise the similarity between the two stories was unmistakable.

Midnight on Beauchamp Row (4.5 stars): Another short, sharp story, but this one was a tad melodramatic with the female acting more “female” according to the stereotype of the day, and Green plays on racial stereotypes too, but the ending made it an entirely different kind of story for me, and that ending bumped the rating up considerably.  I wish I could ask her if she intended her ending to be ironical; I like to think that is was.

The Staircase at the Heart’s Delight (3 stars): This one left me conflicted on a superficial level.  It was a well plotted, and used a fiendishly clever method of murder, but on a deeper, moral level it really disappointed me because of the anti-semitism inherent in the construction of the story.  I just could not enjoy this one, even though academically it’s well-written enough.

The Hermit of –– Street (4 stars): First, let me say, the convention of em dashes instead of names in early stories is really REALLY irritating.  Now that I’ve got that off my chest, this one is pure romantic drivel, but it’s gripping romantic-suspense drivel.  Completely implausible, with a main character that is only saved from being too stilly and frivolous to live by the fact that the writing takes place after the fact, with the narrator looking back and calling out her own naiveté and stupidity.  But still, the plot was, in its way, riveting.  There’s a tiny touch of Brontë here, and I have to wonder if later authors like Whitney, Holt, etc. read Green’s work and were inspired by it.  The ending was complete twaddle though.

As a whole, the book delighted more than the individual stories did.  If I’m being completely objective, some of this might have to do with my edition being published in 1900 – if I bought this collection in a modern binding, as a reprint, I’m not sure I’d have viewed it and its stories as favourably.  There’s something about reading old stories from an old book that softens the critical lens – perhaps the old pages and bindings offer a silent context, reminding the reader sub-consciously that standards and expectations of the day were different, making it easier to judge the author’s efforts from a simpler point of view.  I don’t know, but overall, it’s a solid collection of short stories from an amazing and undervalued writer.

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