Shed some (fan)light on the situation?
March 2, 2022 8:46 PM   Subscribe

Found through a recommendation thread here for detective stories with female protagonists, I picked up ‘The Golden Slipper and Other Problems for Violet Strange’, a series of detective stories from the early 1900s, featuring a young New York socialite who solves mysteries involving interpersonal elements and ‘delicate’ situations. One of the stories includes some details about architecture that seem like shorthand for readers of the day. I am confused and curious about what the subtext of certain window types could mean in the context of a murder investigation.

In the story in question, Miss Strange is reluctant to take another case, so her employer is attempting to pique her curiosity. They have this exchange:

“Last Tuesday night a woman was murdered in this city; an old woman, in a lonely house where she has lived for years. Perhaps you remember the house? It occupies a not inconspicuous site in Seventeenth Street — a house of the olden time?”

“No, I do not remember.”

The extreme carelessness of Miss Strange’s tone would have been fatal to her socially; but then, she would never have used it socially. This they both knew, yet he smiled with his customary indulgence.

“Then I will describe it.”

She looked around for a chair and sank into it. He did the same.

“It has a fanlight over the front door.”

She remained impassive.

“And two old-fashioned strips of parti-colored glass on either side.”

“And a knocker between its panels which may bring money some day.”

“Oh, you do remember! I thought you would, Miss Strange.”

“Yes. Fanlights over doors are becoming very rare in New York.”

“Very well, then. That house was the scene of Tuesday’s tragedy. The woman who has lived there in solitude for years was foully murdered. I have since heard that the people who knew her best have always anticipated some such violent end for her. She never allowed maid or friend to remain with her after five in the afternoon; yet she had money —some think a great deal —always in the house.”

“I am interested in the house, not in her.”

(end of relevant section; the conversation takes another turn from here.)

Why does Miss Strange’s employer mention the fanlight (and colored glass) to rouse her curiosity? What did a fanlight over the front door mean in 1915, and why is it significant that they were rare in New York? Is the address on Seventeenth Street (or mention of it being a house of the olden time) related?

The fanlight makes a second (brief) appearance later in the story. The victim was born and married in the house where she died, and “saw husband, father, mother, and five sisters carried out in turn to their graves through the door with the fanlight over the top — and these memories held her.”

I’m so puzzled and so curious. What’s going on here? Thistle and Rose's page on the history of fanlights wasn't particularly helpful.
posted by jolenex4 to Grab Bag (14 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
From the passage you've quoted, I don't think there's any kind of mystic significance in the sense that "a fanlight always meant that the people who lived in the house were vegetarians" or any other non-house-related detail like that.

It sounds more like something like this is going on:

Miss Strange's boss wants her to take the case. Miss Strange SAYS she doesn't want to take the case, and may even BELIEVE she doesn't want to take the case, but her boss knows that she'd be good at it and may even be a little curious about it already. So him trying to throw out some details of the house all casual-like is his way of reeling her on ("Oh, see, you DO know what house I'm describing, what a coincidence....")

It'd be like: if you know that I had a crush on a guy but I kept denying it and saying I didn't care about him, maybe one day you'd "innocently" talk about how you'd seen him at lunch today spilling soup on his green shirt and I'd blurt out something like "wait, no, he's wearing blue today". The color of his shirt isn't the point, the point is that you've just proven that even though I'm claiming I'm not interested in him, I'm still paying enough attention to him to be able to tell you what color shirt he's wearing today.

Similarly: Miss Strange SAYS she doesn't want to take the case, but she still has been already checking the case out enough to know exact details about the scene of the crime.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:56 PM on March 2, 2022 [6 favorites]

The details reflect a certain personality. Kind of Victorian. Does Miss Strange have a soft spot for old pussies?
posted by irisclara at 9:05 PM on March 2, 2022

Best answer: Fanlights, aka transom lights/windows are a Victorianism in architecture. In the day they let sunlight into the immediate front hall behind the front door, after the sun goes down, they signal by showing light that there is someone home. Both are clues to a specific social world of the 19thC.

They were a strong signal of respectability and middle- to upper-class status, designed to impress people who arrived at the door, and a house that had them likely had other configurations that were part of Victorian social life: a knocker for visitors to announce themselves, a hall to receive them in (that was lit by the fanlight!) and a formal front room to entertain in. A house that has them is designed for a nineteenth century social life of physical visiting, in which visitors approach a door visible from the street, and it's specifically not applicable to 20thC middle- and upper-class lifestyles of inner-urban apartments or of outer-suburban bungalows. In neither of those kinds of dwellings is the door important; it's the out-facing windows with views that matter in apartments, and the gardens and verandahs in the suburbs.

By 1915 in NYC as in other cities with modern technologies, bourgeois social life was changing rapidly; moving away from visitation and calling-cards and other 19thC habits, and being done increasingly by telephone, with less formality and routine, and in locations outside the house.

So the story's emphasis on the fanlight–coloured glass–knocker is a way of signalling old-fashionedness, traditionalism.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 9:42 PM on March 2, 2022 [31 favorites]

Extending Fiasco's on point analysis, you can't have a fan-light without high ceilings. In coal-cheap times, high ceilings allowed tall windows that allowed light to penetrate deeper into the house - heat loss off-set by roaring fires . . . for those who could afford it. It was only relevant for people who spent time at home [sewing, writing letters, entertaining] during the day. Working class folks left home to work elsewhere returning at nighttime to eat and sleep. The parti-colored strips beside the door were other, not strictly functional, signals of comparative wealth; and fustiness?
posted by BobTheScientist at 12:09 AM on March 3, 2022 [7 favorites]

Best answer: 17th street was, along with most of NY, a victim of the slow, 100-year creep of the Brownstone. While obviously Brownstones are very desirable now, at the time a lot of people disliked the block after block of identical row houses. (Edith Wharton famously and fiercely hated them.) I think we're looking at a distinguished Georgian hold-out against modern-day progress, an architectural oddity reflecting it's owner.
posted by DarlingBri at 3:57 AM on March 3, 2022 [8 favorites]

Without having read the stories (though now I think I will, after some research just now), I'm still fairly certain that what is going on in this story is that her employer (police chief?) is trying to rouse her curiosity enough to get her to take the case.

The house is one she KNOWS. Perhaps one she wants, wished she lived in, belongs to a friend or relative or well-known (or well-gossiped about) person, is familiar to her in some way. She has no concern about the woman - if this woman is a relative, it's not one she likes. Violent is a recent debutante, moves in high social circles - and therefore, knowing people is important.

She IS familiar with this house. For a modern-day, albeit nationwide comparison, it's sort of akin to someone saying to an adult in the U.S., "Oh, the house? I think you know the house. It's in Washington D.C., on Pennsylvania Avenue. It's big and white, has these tall columns..." and they're STILL refusing to admit they know the house and who lives there.

It's not the architecture that's relevant, other than that's what he's using to tell her what house it is. It's unclear from this passage what her connection, if any, to the house is - as to why she isn't just familiar with it, but is actively interested in the house itself - but that's flavoring, not the main purpose.

Unless, of course, later on, it turns out that perhaps, the woman is say, her estranged grandmother, and she's the one set to inherit the house, or perhaps she SHOULD have inherited the house, but after her mother died, someone else obtained control of it because she was still a minor... and this is totally off the cuff guessing here, but I would not be surprised if there was a connection like that.

It's possible, too, that at the time the book was written/published, that the house - yes, a real house - and perhaps the history of the owners, was familiar to many people in New York. Whether or not it still exists a hundred years later, who knows? It'd take some research to look for possibilities now.
posted by stormyteal at 9:46 AM on March 3, 2022

Ooh, actually... I wonder if it is describing a particular home in the Ditmas Park / Victorian Flatbush neighborhood. The timing is right for these homes to have been fairly new at the time, too.
posted by stormyteal at 9:52 AM on March 3, 2022 [1 favorite]

The house can’t be new during this conversation because the murder victim lived in it a whole long lifetime. It might even have been in her family for generations. Like DarlingBri, this reminds me of Edith Wharton - she has a series of per-decade ?novellas? starting with False Dawn that tie up architectural, economic, social, moral trends and counter trends in New York.

I’d bet the fanlight means much earlier than Victoriana and cheap fossil fuel - I’m guessing Federal or what we sometimes call Colonial.
posted by clew at 10:54 AM on March 3, 2022

There's probably a 17th St. in Brooklyn somewhere but this one would be Manhattan, where in the early 1900s it's not hard to imagine an old-fashioned brownstone (or Federal) with fanlight standing in what is now Chelsea or Kips Bay and which would have been about 30 years earlier within the steady march northward of the rich in Manhattan.
posted by praemunire at 11:02 AM on March 3, 2022

(In the 1870s, the brownstones had already "coated New York like a cold chocolate sauce," as per The Age of Innocence, so this could easily be a brownstone.)
posted by praemunire at 11:05 AM on March 3, 2022

There is indeed a 17th street in Brooklyn, it's four blocks away from my apartment! There are plenty of old-fashioned brownstones dating back to that era in the area, especially around Windsor Terrace, but I am inclined to agree that this is probably set in Manhattan (though who knows! The author was born in Brooklyn).
posted by cakelite at 12:18 PM on March 3, 2022

No disrespect to any Brooklyn streets! I'm sure it's a lovely 17th St. Just probably without some good independent reason a socialite wouldn't have been bopping around Brooklyn on a regular basis back then.
posted by praemunire at 12:25 PM on March 3, 2022

Best answer: I think the implication is that the house is the only old fashioned mansion/house left in a no longer fashionable neighborhood. The victim's friends have been worried about her living alone in such a neighborhood when she is rumored to keep a lot of money in the house. The architectural details are to emphasize how out of date the house is. Fan lights have gone out of style. The door knocker is so old it will soon be a valuable antique.
posted by interplanetjanet at 9:21 AM on March 4, 2022 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Wow! Very helpful and clarifying thoughts here, especially Fiasco de Gama's in-depth information. The conversation makes a lot more sense to me now. Thanks all!
posted by jolenex4 at 6:43 PM on March 4, 2022

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