“I am not an inquisitive woman. …” So begins That Affair Next Door, Anna Katharine Green’s 1897 mystery novel featuring Amelia Butterworth, an irrepressible spinster who goes on to reveal, “though I have had no adventures, I feel capable of them,” and that a death she has just witnessed “aroused in me a fever of investigation which no reasoning could allay.” Miss Butterworth lives by the maxim of “never arguing with a man unless I see some way of getting the better of him.”

Butterworth was a forerunner to Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, and That Affair Next Door is the first in the Library of Congress Crime Classics series. Published in collaboration with Poisoned Pen Press, the series launches in Spring 2020 with two additional titles: The Rat Began to Gnaw the Rope by C. W. Grafton (1943), and Case Pending by Dell Shannon (1960), set in Los Angeles in the aftermath of the “zoot suit” riots. According to the library, all three novels are ‘firsts’ of a kind: first female detective, one of the first to add humor to hard-boiled style crime writing (Grafton), and one of the first women to write police procedurals (Shannon), featuring a Mexican-American detective, no less. The plan is to feature lesser known and scarce titles that are noteworthy and readable, series editor and two-time Edgar winner, Leslie Klinger, explains by telephone.

Robert Rosenwald, who along with The Poisoned Pen Bookstore owner Barbara Peters founded Poisoned Pen Press, told me that he approached Becky Clark, the Library of Congress’ director of publishing, at a conference and the series took off from there. Poisoned Pen Press­­­—which also publishes the British Library Crime Classics series— came into being as the result of a conference that Peters organized in 1996 in which contemporary crime writers spoke about the effect classic crime writers had on their work. The papers that the writers presented became the press’ first publication and, since then, in addition to publishing current writers, the press has continued its tradition of helping readers to engage with the history of the genre. (Full disclosure: Poisoned Pen Press is now an imprint of Sourcebooks, which published my first two novels.)

In her foreword to That Affair Next Door, Librarian of Congress Carla D. Hayden writes, “Early crime fiction is not only entertaining to read, it also sheds light on the culture of its time. While many of the titles in the series include outmoded language and stereotypes now considered offensive, it’s fascinating to read these books and reflect on the evolution of our society’s perception of race, gender, ethnicity, and social standing.” These observations could apply to all literature from the past, and they bring to mind the question of whether there is something about crime fiction that makes it a better or different lens through which to make visible the cultural preoccupations of its time.

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Hannah Freece, a writer and editor at the Library of Congress feels that is indeed the case. Crime fiction, she says, requires a crime “that disrupts the status quo, which necessarily illuminates what that status quo is … So by both showing how society is threatened by the crime, and then how the people who live in that world seek to rectify it, reveals what that society values, who is important and listened to and who isn’t, and what constitutes justice.”

This seems to be a crucial feature of the genre: Crime fiction is predicated on being able to show the reader what a society most fears, or who the bad guy is—whether it’s someone poor, or insane, or a free-thinking woman, or immigrants, or Nazis, or KGB agents. And what it fears changes over time, making these novels invaluable conduits to the historical moment in which they take place.

Series editor Klinger agrees that crime fiction provides a special prism through which to view the past. “Crime fiction can talk about subjects that aren’t polite—crime, abuse, secrets,” he says, “and use language that is direct, earthy, common.” If That Affair Next Door is any indicator however, the novels in the series are more than just historical curiosities, they’re gripping reads in their own right. Despite moments in which Miss Butterworth seems to be signaling her intent too obviously (I see this as Green’s attempt to teach her readers how to read crime novels, still a relatively new form) it was hard to stop turning the pages.

Klinger notes that as the genre evolved, crime novels became less preoccupied with how the crime is solved (as is the case in That Affair Next Door) and more focused on character development. While many fans’ knowledge of early crime writing jumps from Edgar Allan Poe straight to Dashiell Hammett, he says, the genre has a long and complex past—from sermon writers of the 17th and 18th centuries, to broadsides and police memoirs. Although the library’s Crime Classics series doesn’t go that far back—at least, not yet—these titles fill gaps in the varied, colorful, and sometimes disturbing history of crime fiction in the United States.

All titles in the Crime Classics series are part of the Library of Congress’ vast collection. And in a step beyond mysteries, Poisoned Pen Press will be launching the Haunted Library of Horror Classics series in January 2020, starting with Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux (1911) and The Beetle by Richard Marsh (1897), both influential texts in that genre.

Mystery correspondent Radha Vatsal is the author of Murder Between the Lines and A Front Page Affair. Sign up for her monthly newsletter here.