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Locked Room Reviews:
The first locked room novel!
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It has been many years since I last read ‘The Big Bow Mystery’, but rereading it proved to be just as enjoyable as it was on the first occasion! This book is not just important as the first locked room mystery novel, or because it is #6 on Edward Hoch’s famous list of the best locked room mysteries of all time, instead it should be regarded, quite simply, as one of the best books ever written. Israel Zangwill takes us to the mean reality of the foggy streets of gaslight London with a flair and charm that brings that era vividly to life, in a manner that far surpasses Conan Doyle’s selective perception, and can only be legitimately compared to Charles Dickens – in some ways quite favourably! That Zangwill was heavily influenced by Charles Dickens is beyond any doubt, he was often referred to as the ‘Dickens of the ghetto’, a fact which is made quite evident by the character names he so eloquently employs in this novel.
To be clear, this is not the first locked room mystery; that honour goes to Edgar Allen Poe’s short story, ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’, in 1841 – over four decades earlier! In the introduction, and more stridently in Chapter 4, Zangwill acknowledges he has read Poe’s story, but was apparently underwhelmed by the fantastic solution. However, ‘The Big Bow Mystery’ is the first locked room story that is sufficiently padded to be called a novel, though ‘novelette’ may actually be more appropriate, as the ebook runs a meagre 150 pages. Yet, the length is clearly not the primary historic achievement of this engaging creation. The critical importance of this novel, in the development of the locked room genre, actually lies in Zangwill being the first to make misdirection the central focus of a locked room tale, in much the same manner as a stage magician puts one over on his audience. It was this approach which opened the door, and set the stage, for all those great Golden Age authors, such as John Dickson Carr and Clayton Rawson.
Israel Zangwill was born the son of a Latvian father and a Polish mother. He was educated at the ‘Jews’ Free School’ in Spitalfields in east London, and eventually received a degree from the University of London while teaching to earn his keep. He was highly admired for his writing in both England and America, and was also a relentless social advocate, with a wonderful sense of humour, two traits seldom found in a single human. His other great contribution to literature was his play ‘The Melting Pot’, which coined that famous phrase, as it struggled to capture the American immigrant experience. It proved to be a huge hit at the theatre in the early years of the twentieth century, and Zangwill also wrote several other works, more specifically documenting the modern Jewish diaspora. Some contemporary critics found his dark humour in ‘The Big Bow Mystery’, quite inappropriate, feeling that there was no comedy to be found in the death of a promising young upper class man, murdered in his bed, with his throat slashed from ear to ear. However, the truly amazing behind the scenes story of this novel, is that Zangwill wrote the entire book in 14 days; still polishing later episodes as it was being serialized in the the London Star, a newspaper well known for its coverage of Jack The Ripper. The author also engaged in a lively exchange of ‘letters to the editor’ with his readers, discussing topics like the possible identity of the killer, and various locked room solutions – a very unusual event a century before social media. Unfortunately, though Zangwill did not die until 1926, he never produced another mystery – though his brother, Louis Zangwill, apparently attempted a similar work, with the cumbersome title, ‘A Nineteenth-Century Miracle: A Novel’, though I have yet to find a reasonably priced copy.
The Bow Street mystery begins on a grey December morning in Bow, a working class district in the East End of London, as a dense morning fog, mixed with coal smog, swirls through the drab streets. Usually, Mrs. Drabdump, of 11 Grover Street, “was one of the few persons in London whom fog did not depress”, being always cheerless, but this day she had overslept, an event that was virtually unknown. After lighting the fire, and putting on the water for tea, she remembers that she was supposed to wake one of her lodgers, Arthur Constant, earlier than his usual hour. Constant, an upper class idealist, and a fierce campaigner for workers’ rights, was due to speak at an early morning union meeting, so Mrs. Drabdump banged on his bedroom door, before returning to her morning routine. However, when she arrives with his breakfast tray, there is still no response, and she suddenly has a premonition that something is very wrong. She immediately summons her neighbour, the famous retired Scotland Yard detective, Mr George Grodman, who batters down the door, which had been locked and bolted from the inside, only to discover Constant, with his throat slit from ear to ear, and no potential weapon to be found anywhere inside the room.
The coroner’s verdict is rather murky, despite the indubitable logic: “It seems clear that the deceased did not commit suicide. It seems equally clear that the deceased was not murdered.” The drama then gradually builds as Inspector Edward Wimp of Scotland Yard takes on the case, while Grodman continues to contribute his own public analysis of the mystery. It is this competition, between the two great detectives, that drives the entire story, pitting youth against age, hope against despair, the cultured man against the logician, and intellectual brilliance against long practical experience. The other tenant of Mrs. Drabdump, Constant’s friend and colleague, Tom Mortlake, a man raised up from the masses and the “hero of a hundred strikes”, soon becomes the meat in this detective sandwich. Mortlake had apparently left very early on the morning of the murder for the Devonport Dockyards, putting himself in the clear, but Wimp is determined to prove this alibi false, while Grodman is equally determined to declare it valid. We are also provided with glimpses into the life of an alcoholic poet, Denzil Cantercot, who wrote Grodman’s memoirs, ‘Criminals I Have Caught’; the world of his ‘plain man’ landlord, Peter Crowl, and his sharp tongued wife; and the reader is even treated to a cameo appearance by the long term British Prime Minister, William Gladstone. It is a darkly humorous, but incredibly joyful read, that can hardly fail to charm.
One of the first questions that any reviewer must posit when reviewing this classic, involves determining the appropriate frame of reference for this novel. If one reviews ‘The Big Bow Mystery’ as one of the great locked room stories, employing one of the classic locked room devices for the very first time, it is of considerable historical importance, but actually quite far from laying any real claim to being the best locked room mystery of all time. If one approaches this book as a great classic mystery, it fares even worse. Conan Doyle, and many other talented Victorians, were far better mystery writers, with much deeper characters and far more intricate and challenging plots. Then, finally, if one approaches ‘The Big Bow Mystery’ purely as a classic piece of Victorian literature, in comparison to Dickens et al, it does far better, but is still no iconic literary masterpiece. Zangwill lacks Dickens incredible talent for characterization and depth of engagement, or Wilkie Collins complex plotting genius, though he still draws us a wonderful landscape of Victorian class struggle, criminal justice, and several other social issues, that is a far less weighty and more enjoyable to read than most of his contemporaries.
So why is ‘The Big Bow Mystery’ such a great read? The answer is, again quite simply, because it engages the reader on so many fronts. It is a beautifully crafted story written by a very talented wordsmith. It is a “wickedly funny” romp, as several reviewers have noted. It is also a wonderful locked room mystery, and a really good mystery read, that will fool most seasoned mystery fans, as well as a gripping commentary on Victorian life, that draws you in and keeps you turning those pages, until you finally reach the end! The mystery is fair play, giving all the necessary physical and psychological clues, and the only unfortunate part is that it must finally end – and the reader is not going to like the solution! We always want the magician to reveal his secrets, only to feel foolish and betrayed once we learn the too simple truth, and this trick is certainly no exception! Still, this book is much more fun than a whole chimney stuffed full of bright orange orangoutangs, and a great Victorian mystery – who could ask for more! Without a doubt this is a five star classic!
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