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The Big Bow Mystery

Page history last edited by PBworks 15 years, 8 months ago

Zangwill, Israel - The Big Bow Mystery (1892)


The Big Bow Mystery opens on a frigid, foggy December morning as the Dickensian-named Mrs Drabdump, a widow letting out rooms in her home in Bow, east London, cannot get lodger Arthur Constant to open his bedroom door. She becomes so alarmed she goes to ask for help from George Grodman, a retired detective who lives a few doors down the street, and he forces the door open.


The horrible sight within is described by the coroner as "the deceased lying back in bed with a deep wound in his throat....There was no trace of any instrument by which the cut could have been effected: there was no trace of any person who could have effected the cut. No person could apparently have got in or out."


Needless to say the case causes a sensation, the more so as Constant, though wealthy, was devoted to helping the working class.


Fellow lodger and friend Tom Mortlake, a man of similar mind and "hero of a hundred strikes", had left early that morning for Devonport Dockyard to help the dockers there. A second sensation is caused when Mortlake is arrested at the Liverpool Docks where he was making enquiries about steamers to America. He is released when it is learnt he was in Liverpool to seek news of a friend about whom he was uneasy. His innocence is supported by a cabby who drove him to London's Euston Station that morning, who confirms he picked up Mortlake at about 4.30 am, well before the estimated time of Constant's death. Even so, more doubts are raised when Mrs Drabdump reveals at the inquest that Mortlake and Constant had quarrelled the night before the latter's death.


The retired detective Grodman and Edward Wimp of Scotland Yard both undertake investigations and so the deciphering of The Big Bow Mystery begins. To add a bit of spice to the teacake, the men detest each other.


In the course of a lengthy narrative we hear of Denzil Cantercot, a poet with secrets -- why he gives money he's just received to two housemaids before it's even warm in his pocket for example -- and Mortlake's fiancee, Lucy Brent, who has apparently disappeared. There's some plot padding, which is not to say the story is uneventful: Gladstone appears at an event that ends in a riot and ultimately Mortlake goes on trial for the murder of his friend. But did he really do it and if he did, how it is to be proved?


My verdict: One of the burning questions in The Big Bow Mystery is how the culprit carried out the crime, given the bedroom door was not only locked but also bolted on the inside. Various theories are suggested in letters to the press, including a monkey with a razor coming down the chimney, the removal and replacement of a window pane or a door panel, a culprit hiding in the wardrobe who managed to escape unnoticed when the door was broken down, and secret passages and trapdoors! As for the missing weapon, was it a candlestick or similar common item of bedroom furniture, fitted with a hidden blade after the fashion of a swordstick -- or could the departed have been a suicide and somehow swallowed the weapon before expiring?


After various red herrings are thrown back into the briny and trips into investigative cul de sacs are reversed, the culprit turns out to be the least likely suspect, who committed the crime for a particularly vile reason.


The explanation of how a murder could be committed in a locked room is clever, hinging partly on the physical arrangements and partly on a psychological point, the clew to which is given in fair fashion early in the novel. If readers don't mind Zangwill's somewhat rambling and wordy style The Big Bow Mystery will be of interest. Published in the early l890s, well before the beginning of the Golden Age, it is also said to be the earliest true example of the locked room mystery.




Mary R

The Big Bow Mystery, published in 1892, was the first genuine locked - room mystery. This edition contains Zangwill's preface, in which he explains that the book was written over a period of a fortnight, for serial publication; he also comments on the ingenious solutions that were proposed by readers during its publication, none of which, however, were correct. Despite its fame, this is the first copy I have ever seen; a sad comment on the neglected history of our subject.


For years I went under the impression that this book was set in the Western USA; 'Big Bow' gave me unconscious connotations of wide rivers and sweeping plains. But this is in fact a Big Mystery in Bow, London -- the Bow of 'Bow Street Runners' and 'St. Mary-le-bow' which somehow became Marylebone. The characters are suburban home - owners, boarders, and lodging-house dwellers. At 150 pages in paperback the book is not long enough for a novel but too long for a short story, which might help to explain why copies are so hard to find. It toys uneasily with 'funny' names (Mrs Drabdump is the victim's landlady, and Inspector Wimp represents the Police) and -- despite its shortness -- finds space to introduce a mendicant poet and a Radical cobbler who don't have much, in the end, to do with the solution. It also has a mild dig at Gladstone. (Israel Zangwill was a journalist with left-wing leanings, although these do not emerge strongly in the book.) Clues are fairly thin on the ground, and the solution turns out to be one that a modern reader would have entertained from the beginning. It remains quite readable, though, and there is some nice interplay between the characters which is well observed.


Zangwill himself refers to it as a 'skit', and there is plenty of humour in it: from the Coroner's juryman who wants to insist on a verdict of 'Death from visitation by the act of God' to the trial of the accused man where the judge sums up both for murder AND suicide. A couple of Victorian cliches emerge: the murdered man is a saint in human form, and the detective, heavily disguised, takes up residence in his rooms for a few weeks to pursue his enquiries. I wonder what a modern police department would think of paying three weeks' rent so an Inspector could put on a false beard and live in someone else's flat? This particular edition was published by Carrol and Graf, New York, in 1986. Unfortunately the binding is so tight that to scan it would be to destroy it, and it's a library copy. Anyone with a scannable copy should consider making it available to the public through Project Gutenberg.


Jon Jermey



This is arguably the first 'locked - room' mystery novel (1892 UK; 1895 US), that is, a detective story in which the puzzle aspect is the critical element of the plot rather than being an ancillary item, as it was in Le Fanu's Uncle Silas, for example. It is also a pre - Golden - Age - of - Detection prototype in that it follows the rules of 'fair play' by providing the evidence for the solution in the form of clues imbedded in the text, supplies alternative solutions and suspects - the classic 'red herring' approach - and has a 'least - likely' suspect as the villain. All that it is lacking is what we would call a proper detective who out - thinks the reader. Another aspect of the book is what one could call social realism, not a critical part of classic detection but often of great interest to the curious reader who enjoys some 'local color' or an interesting setting beyond what is presumably his/her personal milieu.


In this, Zangwill resembles his contemporary mystery writer, Arthur Morrison, who wrote stories about Martin Hewitt, a 'rival of Sherlock Holmes', but is more famous for his novels about London's East End slums (Tales of Mean Streets, A Child of the Jago, etc.). Zangwill was more famous as a Zionist and socialist, and as a novelist of the Morrison sort - Children of the Ghetto, for example. In both cases, this leads to a style that is surprisingly modern in its attitude and avoids what some consider the stodginess of the Victorians and Edwardians (on the surface at least). A dry wit is not the least of his virtues: “But it is difficult for saints to see through their own haloes; and in practice an aureola about the head is often indistinguishable from a mist.” The plot of The Big Bow Mystery involves the murder of a well - known 'Union Agitator' (Arthur Constant), his throat being cut in his East End bed - sit flat, door locked and bolted and the windows inaccessible, no weapon to be found, hence not a suicide. An obvious suspect is his rival in labor politics and in love, but he (Tom Mortlake) has a good alibi, supposedly on a train to Liverpool when the murder was committed, even though he had had a fight with deceased the night before.


The details are revealed in an amusing coroner's inquest that covers the forensics, establishes various identities, and comes up with a strange open verdict: “It seems clear that the deceased did not commit suicide. It seems equally clear that the deceased was not murdered. There is nothing for it, therefore, gentlemen, but to return a verdict tantamount to an acknowledgement of our incompetence to come to any adequately grounded conviction whatever as to the means or the manner by which the deceased met his death.” After this, follows a nice set - piece about Press Frenzy, including letters to the editor providing solutions, some reasonable, some off the wall. Two rival detectives are heavily involved in trying to solve the case, the retired policeman George Grodman (who discovered the body in company with Constant's landlady Mrs Drabdump) and Inspector Edward Wimp of Scotland Yard. “The two men were always overwhelmingly cordial when they met, in order to disguise their mutual detestation.” Wimp, of course, has his own conclusion, regardless of mere facts, and ends up arresting Mortlake at a Liberal rally in the presence of Gladstone himself; Mortlake escapes during the resulting near riot.


A key character is Mortlake's friend Denzil Cantercot, a reporter for The New Pork Herald (!), hack writer - and in fact the ghost - writer of Grodman's Memoirs, for which he hasn't been paid. Mortlake turns himself in, cleverly at a local cop shop, so as to deny Wimp the credit, and is duly committed for trial - another nice set piece, ending in a travesty guilty verdict after the judge's summing up. “Having thus well - nigh hung the prisoner, the judge wound up by insisting on the high probability of the story for the defense... The jury, being by this time being sufficiently muddled by his impartiality, were dismissed... 'Guilty'. The judge put on his black cap. The great reception arranged outside was a fiasco; the evening banquet was indefinitely postponed. Wimp had won; Grodman felt like a whipped cur.”


There follows, a week or two later, the dramatic rescue of Mortlake from the gallows and the ultimate solution, which of course shall not be revealed here. All in all, this is a delightful mystery with a full complement of puzzle elements. One point not to be neglected is that it is also a novella - 100 pages or so - but still manages to pack in as much detail as a much longer detective novel such as is produced routinely these days would do. A model of concision, good plotting, and sufficient background and characterization to maintain interest at a high level.


Wyatt James


Zangwill's classic novella "The Big Bow Mystery" (1891) is the flagship of the modern locked room story. In these tales, a crime is committed in a room that is locked from the inside. How could any murderer have committed this crime, and then escaped? It seems impossible. This sort of puzzle is one of the main categories of modern mystery fiction. Writers have devoted considerable ingenuity to developing solutions to the locked room murder. Locked room puzzles climax with the work of John Dickson Carr. A full detailed history of locked room fiction can be found in Robert C. S. Adey's Locked Room Murders and Other Impossible Crimes. This book contains a bibliography, listing over 2,000 impossible crime novels and short stories.


The non Locked Room aspects of "The Big Bow Mystery"


The mystery set up of Israel Zangwill's "The Big Bow Mystery" (1891) reminds one in general terms of Fergus Hume, and his pioneering mystery bestseller, The Mystery of a Hansom Cab (1886). It also has features in common with such Hume influenced authors as Bodkin and Orczy. All of these writers share some basic paradigms about what a detective story should be like. Although they are contemporary with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, they seem less influenced by him than one would suspect. Zangwill opens with an elaborate inquest, which is followed by public speculation on the solution of the crime: features found in Hume and (and later in Orczy). The public speculation is done through reading about the crime in the paper, followed by offering solutions to the crime in letters to the editor. Orczy's use of armchair detectives in The Old Man in the Corner (1901), who discuss and solve the case based on what they read in the newspaper, can be seen as just an elaborate extension of the many solutions offered by the newspaper reading public in Zangwill's story. There is also a network of relationships between the characters in the tale, which can be interpreted in different ways to create solutions to the mystery. This network is not set forth quite as calmly and dispassionately as in other writers who use this basic approach, however, such as Hume, Orczy and Bodkin. Zangwill's tale has plenty of humor, an attribute as well of Bodkin.


Zangwill has some unique characteristics not derived from Hume, however. Importantly, Zangwill's book shows a full commitment to the puzzle plot. Zangwill's 1895 preface to the book is the first statement known to me of the principle of fair play in detective fiction, although he does not actually use the term "fair play".


The Locked Room


Chapter 4 of Zangwill's story contains multiple proposed solutions to his locked room puzzle. It is a virtual locked room lecture, 44 years before Carr's famous one in The Three Coffins (1935). The immense variety of solutions suggested makes "The Big Bow Mystery" not just a single mystery, but virtually an entire genre of "Locked room fiction", all in itself. Did Zangwill dream up all of these ideas by himself? Are they references to earlier authors? Did he incorporate ideas from his readers' letters? (The novel appeared serially, and Zangwill's preface describes the mass of proposed solutions he received from readers.) Zangwill might not have invented the locked room mystery, but he definitely crystallized it as a genre with this book.


Zangwill's book explicitly invokes Edgar Allan Poe's "Murders in the Rue Morgue" (1841) as its ancestor. There was a whole Victorian tradition of direct variations on Poe's tale, largely by casebook writers such as Charles Martel, M.M.B., and the casebook-influenced Arthur Morrison. All of these writers limited themselves to very small variations on Poe's original solution. Zangwill is vastly more inventive. His chapter 4 lists a large number of far more ingenious variations on Poe. Then his actual solution at the end of the tale develops a radically different approach from Poe's to the impossible crime, one not dependent on physical objects, but on deceptive rearrangements in time and space. This is the major new direction to be followed by 20th Century locked room fiction, especially G.K. Chesterton and his successors.


Zangwill's use of multiple proposed solutions also anticipates such Golden Age books as Bentley's Trent's Last Case, Berkeley's The Poisoned Chocolates Case, and Queen's The Greek Coffin Mystery.


The best part of Zangwill's story is the first four chapters, which outline the mystery plot, together with the final chapter. Most of the other, later chapters, outline a blind alley in the investigation, and contain a great deal of off beat characterizations. This is a bit padded.


Mike Grost

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