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London's First Armchair Detective

The Old Man in the Corner: Twelve Classic Detective Stories - Emmuska Orczy, E.F. Bleiler

This is a collection of twelve stories taken from the first two (of three) books featuring the "Old Man in the Corner," one of Emmuska Orczy's very first literary creations and -- but for Edgar Allan Poe's M. Dupin (who solves the Mystery of Marie Rogêt solely based on a number of newspaper articles) -- one of, if not the earliest armchair detective ever to grace the pages of a book: He may occasionally attend a coroner's or police court hearing, but in all but one of the cases he is not personally involved in any way in the investigation, taking the bulk of his knowledge from what is reported of a case in the newspapers -- and yet, disdaining the police and the criminal courts for their inefficiency, since virtually all of these cases are considered mysteries because law enforcement has failed to produce the real culprit; in the "Old Man"'s opinion, as a result of getting caught up in procedure and petty routines instead of applying logical thought.  (Which, obviously, is an attitude that the "Old Man" shares with many a "consulting", amateur or plain private detective from Sherlock Holmes to Nero Wolfe and beyond.)

 

Orczy's Old Man in the Corner stories were originally serialized in newspapers and published in book form only later, with the third batch of stories (originally published in 1904) collected in book form first, in The Case of Miss Elliot (1905), and a book containing the first two batches (serialized in 1901 and 1902, respectively) following three years later and entitled simply The Old Man in the Corner.  (A final batch of stories, ultimately published in book form under the title Unravelled Knots, only followed in 1924-1925 and, if reviewers and editorialists are to be believed, wasn't up to the same standard as their much earlier predecessors.) This particular Dover Publications collection dating from 1980 is taken in almost equal parts from the first and second "Old Man" books, with three stories each representing the original 1901 and the 1902 series, and six stories the 1904 series later collected in The Case of Miss Elliot. -- One of the stories from the second series, The Glasgow Mystery, here sees the light of day for the first time since its original publication in a newspaper, as Orczy's erroneous inclusion of "coroner's proceedings" in a city where such do not actually exist (she should have referred to the Procurator Fiscal instead) caused a public outcry; and as a result, the story was not included in the selection originally published in book form -- which is a shame, because the mystery would work just as well if the proper law enforcement bodies and procedures were substituted for the miscast coroner.

 

BrokenTune noted in a recent review of a Sherlock Holmes story how certain recurring features in Arthur Conan Doyle's writing, from setting to dialogue to the construction of his stories, foster a sense of familiarity, recognition, and literally of "coming home" (to 221B Baker Street) on the part of the reader and can create, even for today's readers, a sense of community with these stories' original audience: The same can be said almost certainly, at least as far as Baroness Orcy's original readers were concerned, for the Old Man in the Corner stories.   In fact, reading them all in rapid succcession (as I did) may not be the best approach, because it's impossible not to notice their formulaic structure that way -- but that same formulaic approach that starts to grate a bit in quick mass exposure may well just have been the very element that invoked a sense of looked-for familiarity in the original readership, and the fact that there were several successive series of these stories manifestly testifies to their popularity.  Stylistically, in any event, they are accomplished enough, and if I hadn't known that the very first of these tales, The Fenchurch Street Mystery, was one of the first prose works (and the very first crime story) ever published by Orczy, I certainly wouldn't have guessed as much.

 

In each installment, a "Lady Journalist" (in the final stories, identified as one Polly Burton) meets up with the eponymous unnamed "Old Man", who sits in the corner of an A.B.C. tea room reading his newspaper, to proceed, in short order, to discussing the latest reported unsolved crime with her, all the while  tying and untying a piece of string into a series of impossibly complicated knots.  As in Conan Doyle's mysteries, the formula exceeds the mere framework setting and the Old Man's idiosynchrasies and extends to content; here, however, not so much to dialogue as to plot -- and while there still may have been either a sense of genuine surprise in the original audience (or, who knows, this, too, may have been part of the comfortable feeling of meeting old friends), I confess to me at some point it started coloring Orczy's narratives with a bit of a "one trick pony" brush, particularly as virtually everyone of them relies on a sleight of hand that is central to The Scarlet Pimpernel, too, and I ended up just looking for how she would set it up this time around, knowing once I had uncovered this particular feature I would also know the solution -- which somewhat impinged on the joy of the hunt and pretty much removed the element of surprise after a while.

 

Interestingly, the Old Man in the Corner shares a bit of publication history with both Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot, in that his creator actually did not intend him to have quite the long-lasting career that he ended up enjoying: At the end of the last of the original five stories published in 1901 she has the Lady Journalist unmask the Old Man's identity (and, incidentally, his involvement with the case they have been discussing), which forces him into instant retirement -- so every installment of the later series has to remind the reader that this is an occurrence which actually took place before that "final" case at the end of which, so far as the narrator / Lady Journalist knows, for all practical purposes he vanished from sight.  As in the cases of the Old Man's (today) much more famous contemporaries, this, too, of course testifies to his enduring popularity with the reading public; not least taking into account Orczy's "Glasgow coroner" mess-up.

 

I've already read another book for the first square / chapter of the Detection Club bingo (A New Era Dawns), so I'm just going to be doubling up on squares there, but I will get to count this book towards the "O" square of the Women Writers Bingo.