The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

The Amelia Butterworth Mysteries (1897-1900) 

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

The three Amelia Butterworth mysteries--That Affair Next Door (1897), Lost Man’s Lane (1898), and The Circular Study (1900)–were written by Anna Katherine Green (1846-1935), who is known today as “the Mother of Detective Fiction.”1 She was not the first American female author of mysteries (see: The Dead Letter), but her The Leavenworth Case was a best seller, and Green was the most financially successful of the female mystery authors of the nineteenth century.

Amelia Butterworth is an amateur detective who appears in the Ebenezer Gryce mysteries (see: The Leavenworth Case) and who acts as Gryce’s assistant. She is not the protagonist of the novels, but she does narrate That Affair Next Door and Lost Man’s Lane and is a central character in The Circular Study. Unlike Gryce she is not a professional and does not accept money for her investigations. Butterworth is an early and prominent example of the elderly amateur female sleuth, a minor character type with a long and distinguished history (see: Female Detectives). Butterworth is not the first elderly amateur female sleuth—that would be E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Mademoiselle de Scudéry (see: “Mademoiselle de Scudéry”)—but Butterworth is more active and more of a crime-solver than de Scudéry was, and Butterworth was far more influential. Just as Green’s debutante detective Violet Strange was an influence on Nancy Drew, so too was Butterworth influential on the female sleuths who followed her. The Gryce and Butterworth stories were popular in their time, and other mystery writers, including Mary Roberts Rinehart and Agatha Christie, read them and were influenced by them.

Green’s work has not aged well, however, and the Butterworth novels are no better than the Gryce novels in which she does not appear. They are intelligently written, well-researched—Green makes use of then-innovative elements like ballistics in her mysteries—and Green is formally experimental in her use of multi-media elements like diagrams, hand-written letters, and diary entries. But, like the Gryce novels, the Butterworth novels are dull, with stiff characterization and lackluster dialogue. There is a certain humor to the stories, and a reference to Tom Richmond (see: Richmond: Scenes in the Life of a Bow Street Runner), but for the most part the Butterworth stories are well-constructed and lifeless.

Butterworth herself is interesting, if not enjoyable. Like Christie’s Hercule Poirot she was intended to be enjoyable, but like Poirot she is actively unpleasant. Butterworth, who lives in Manhattan, is a well-known and socially respected spinster from a good family. She is inquisitive (alternatively, a busybody), vain, disagreeable, waspish, aristocratic in her statements and actions toward others, and too concerned with respectability, order, and standards. But she is also devoted to seeing that justice is done. She is a good detective: observant, smart, and clever. She respects and likes Gryce, and he she, but the reader is likely to feel respect for her rather than affection.

An argument can be made for Butterworth being a sign of progress in the detective genre, in that she operates not because of the marriage plot (see: “The Lady Detective”) and not as an honorary male, but rather as an independent woman, doing her own will:

In the first place, she did not fit into any of the dismissible categories. Green was writing for the genteel middle class, her books published by Putnam's, a major house. Her sleuth came from a very different world than that inhabited by earlier women detectives. Miss Butterworth was unmarried, as was Loveday Brooke [see: The Experiences of Loveday Brooke, Lady Detective], but was from a distinguished colonial family. More important, she was financially secure and could do what she wanted in life, an independent woman who answered to no one but herself. Amelia Butterworth became involved in crime and detection because she was endlessly curious about her fellow human beings. Green's Amelia Butterworth novels, a more complex geometry aims the vectors of ridicule at the age and gender perceptions of society; the spinster sleuth functions as a collector and reflector of society's obtuseness. She may be pushed aside and ignored, usually by the official male detective, but she solves the mystery at hand. She is a woman whom in the end it pays to respect.2 

While Green’s Amelia Butterworth novels were not the first by a female author, or the first to feature a female detective, they were nonetheless significant in the development of the detective and mystery genre:

These two detective novels by Anna Katherine Green represent significant developments in the history of women’s popular writing, making clear a fact that has become somewhat obscure to us in the present moment: women were central to the history of popular literature and to the development of mass culture at the beginning of the twentieth century. Readers who believe that the American detective novel originated with the hard-boiled school of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler will be surprised to learn that American women in the 1860s took the detective story apparatus famously introduced by Edgar Allan Poe and developed it into a full-blown novelistic form. This female tradition of detective fiction was highly popular in its own day and enjoyed a devoted readership of men and women from the middle and upper classes. It is quite different from either of the styles well-known to readers of detective fiction today, the American hard-boiled style and its several offshoots or the British golden age style and its current variations. Green’s novels are a hybrid of the detective story and the domestic novel, an earlier popular genre of women’s writing in which both the narrative emphasis and the kinds of crimes that occur are centered around questions of home, family, and women’s experience. So close is the connection between these two narrative forms that we can call the tradition domestic detective fiction.3 

Recommended Edition

Print: Anna Katherine Green, That Affair Next Door and Lost Man’s Lane. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003.



1 A common critical phrase for Green; Patricia D. Maida’s biography of Green is entitled Mother of Detective Fiction: The Life & Works of Anna Katherine Green (Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1989).

2 Joan Warthling Roberts, “Amelia Butterworth: The Spinster Detective,” in Glenwood Irons, ed., Feminism in Women’s Detective Fiction (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995), 31.

3 Catherine Ross Nickerson, “Introduction,” in Anna Katherine Green, That Affair Next Door & Lost Man’s Lane (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003), 1.

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