#677: “You must forgive me if I repeat that which you know already…” – The Old Man in the Corner [ss] (1908) by Baroness Orczy

Old Man in the Corner

You are three weeks away from, but I have just recorded, an episode of In GAD We Trust with a focus on short stories, part of the preparation for which got me reflecting on the works by Baroness Emmuska Orczy about the old man found in the corner of the A.B.C Teashop holding forth on unsolved crimes.  And the more I thought about them, the more I wanted to write about them.  So here we are.

While The Old Man in the Corner (1908) was the chronologically second collection of Orczy’s criminous short fiction, it comprises the earliest stories she wrote. Part of this delay in anthologising is doubtless down to the fact that the tales were originally related by a nameless narrator but — and, if anyone knows why, I’d be genuinely interested in the reason for this — were rewritten in the third person for this collection.  So the dates I’ll provide here are the original publication dates of those first-person narratives, though I’ll fully admit that I’ve not done the due diligence to establish whether the plots were altered in any meaningful way.  The illustrations provided in this new edition from Pushkin Vertigo are also the H.M. Brock originals used in the first publications, and I have replicated some of them here for your perusal because they are marvellous.

I first, and last, read these stories — or some of Orczy’s writing, anyway, the precise details are, you’ll be shocked to learn, hazy — about 18 years ago and found them somewhat dull and impenetrable.  As my appreciation of GAD has grown in the intervening period, I’ve retained a sense of their importance that made me keen to revisit them in the expectation that their quality would impress me rather more with some context applied.  And, to my delight, I really enjoyed these.  Orczy has taken the essential principles of Poe and fed them through Conan Doyle in a way that others spoken of in the same breath never quite managed to my taste.  The armchair detection has about it the clarity of setup that makes the best of the Holmes stories so gosh-darned readable still, but retains the essential complexity and “viewed at a distance” air of Poe’s ‘The Mystery of Marie Roget’ (1842) the enables our elderly, vertex-habitating sleuth to bring the perspective needed.  Additionally, and crucially given their obvious influence on genre development, each story here is built on one of the cornerstones of classic era detection in a manner that would encourage others to pick up the same threads and weave them into yet more complex patterns.

Chapters 1-3 comprise ‘The Fenchurch Street Mystery’ (1901), which introduces us to third-person reporter Polly Burton and our eponymous Old Man with his piece of string constantly being wound in and out of “knots of wonderful and complicated proportions”.  When he claims that the disappearance of William Kershaw, which has “puzzled the brains of every thinking man and woman for the last twelve months”, is a mere trifle, Polly is as naturally sceptical as the rest of us would be…and so he lays out the details and a compelling solution using only the information in the public domain.

It’s a neat introduction to the principle of this armchair detective, and contains a few points that would be picked up by the emerging detective genre: disguise, the difficulties of establishing identity, and the apparent proofs available at the time to enable both.  I’m also intrigued by the idea that a defendant would be allowed to fall asleep at his own trial for murder — was that…a thing?  Either way, this is charming and effective, and can be criticised only on the grounds that a) a body surely wouldn’t decompose that much over a mere 1a days, and b) a debt of £10 in 1901 (around £1,200 today) wouldn’t really be considered “small” would it?

Vanishing diamonds and the sort of sudden reveal that you feel Ronald Knox would have never forgiven Orczy for greet us in ‘The Robbery in Phillimore Terrace’ (1901): on his evening rounds a constable catches a tramp in a cul-de-sac just as the denizen of one of the houses comes out screaming theft.  No illicit articles — the diamonds — are found on the hobo, but this doesn’t stop some £25,000 of diamonds (in 1901!) also vanishing from another house in the same street.  The solution is a cheat of titanic proportions, and yet the story is fun and difficult to bear a grudge against.

I’m like the idea of a police detective employing “Machiavellian cunning” to track down the origins of a piece of paper, and the extended scene in which the police tail the hobo around London has a great climax.  We’re on the verge of the Edgar Wallace-ish thriller here, with just enough (off-page) detection to suggest that ratiocination is indeed used in the solving of such crimes and thus a change in how these stories are told might be on the way.

Old Man 1

The time spent establishing the racing milieu for the three chapters of ‘The York Mystery’ (1902) is where Poe’s influence is felt very strongly — Chesterton would have similarly lingered over this, where Doyle would have painted it in about a fifth of the words.  The core precept of ‘I heard a cry, and found this scoundrel crouching over a body with a knife in it’ is, naturally, neatly utilised for a bit of accuse and counter-accuse by the two men who find a third stabbed to death, and the small matter of horseflesh, outstanding debts, and pecuniary motives on all sides is again a staple of this emerging genre.

This dates badly by the core assumption which sees guilt fastened on an unexpected-yet-bloody-obvious-in-hindsight suspect:

“No Englishman, be he ruffian from the gutter or be he Duke’s son, ever stabs his victim in the back.  Italians, French, Spaniards do it, if you will, and women of most nations.  An Englishman’s instinct is to strike and not to stab.”

In that one simple assertion, or Old Man proves himself singularly incapable of solving about 30% of the crimes that would have come his way in the Golden Age.  It stretches the principle of deduction too far, obviously, and shows the callowness of this type of story still, but the uncluttered prose and light touch with scene setting still compel after all these years.

‘The Mysterious Death on the Underground Railway’ (1901) opens with one of the great truisms of detective fiction, which underlines the importance of logical deduction as criminals became more savvy:

“The person who represents ninety out of every hundred of his own kind…who is neither very tall nor very short, who wears a moustache which is neither fair nor dark [and] a top hat which hides the shape of his head and brow… Try to describe him, to recognise him, say a week hence…worse still, to swear his life away, if he happened to be implicated in some crime, wherein your recognition of him would place the halter round his neck.”

We have here, too, a confirmation by medical evidence to assure us of the “absolutely sudden and crushing” death of Mrs. Hazeldene in a carriage on the London underground.    But the Old Man’s conviction about the guilty party, based on “the only slip the cunning rogue made” is, again, a seriously faulty piece of terminal evidence.  It could, after all, have been a deliberate double-bluff — and would become so in the work of, say, Christianna Brand and Freeman Wills Crofts, wherein the nature of identity is always a slippery thing.  It’s a bad flaw here, but one I can see many authors developing into great things in the years to come.

Continuing the trend of non-London-based tales being given astonishingly bland titles, ‘The Liverpool Mystery’ (1902) sees a Wealthy Foreign Prince treated with native British Suspicion — as is his due — when he requests that a representative of a jeweller’s be sent to his hotel with an assortment of their wares so that he might buy some.  Some lovely phrasing (c.f. the clerk who “was, in true British fashion, ignorant of any language save his own”) helps this one go down, and brings us to the horns of a dilemma that has to go one way or the other.

Strictly this isn’t true armchair detection, since the Old Man tells Polly of the extra investigation he undertook to reach his answer, but without that — hell, even with it — his answer doesn’t hold up as the answer (Polly being left in the final line “trying vainly to find another solution” is aught more than a handful of dust in the eyes).  To an extent, what this continued truckling of mine over these terminal failures does is underline how difficult a detection short story is to write: you can understand why Doyle’s villains were so easy to spot, because he also had to make the case against them as tight as possible.  I enjoy Orczy’s setups more, and the logical argument against confederacy is a solid one, but this is another case of the possibilities left open rather than the story itself showing the way.

Old Man 2

It’s lovely to revisit the attitudes of bygone days, as seen in the disbelief that “a young lady born and bred in the best social circle could have conceived, much less executed, so heinous a crime” as related in ‘The Edinburgh Mystery’ (1902).  When Lady Donaldson is murdered and her diamonds stolen, suspicion immediately falls on the fiancée of her “ugly, deformed, half-demented” godson.  With Edith Crawford seen merely as a gold-digger after the Donaldson fortune, there is little sympathy for her even after she is acquitted of the crime; after all, she was even seen in the vicinity at the time while claiming to be elsewhere…

I understand the order of events here, but the reasons for people acting as they do are bizarre.  As presented, the diamond theft makes no sense — obviously it would be discovered, and the guilty party would be equally obvious…so why do it?  Equally, that sighting of Edith is never addressed of explained, and most Golden Age authors would have got solidly 40 pages of intrigue out of that.  This is, alas, another case of simply trying to rush through an answer that doesn’t work and being thankful that there’s not enough space for anyone to question the flaws.

The nadir of this collection is surely represented by ‘The Theft at the English Provident Bank’ (1901), which struggles on several fronts.  Firstly the infuriatingly unclear description of the setup at the bank: corridors and glass screens and doors that bolt on one side but unlock on the other…heaven alone knows what this looks like in reality…couldn’t we have had a map?  Secondly the idiotic idea that someone who is blatantly lying in the not inconsiderable matter of a £600,000 theft wouldn’t be investigated further: I know she’s the bank manager’s wife, but, c’mon, people.

Thirdly, and perhaps most critically, the crime as it actually happens makes no sense.  There is simply no way, no-one wishing to impugn a lady’s character or otherwise, that your criminal is getting away with this.  If that’s the standard for criminous misdoings, I think we needed the Golden Age just to give our fictional detectives something to get their teeth into.  Crikey, no wonder Lestrade, Hadley, Japp, and others had rungs run around them by their Amateur Detective of choice — the poor men hadn’t had to do a day’s thinking in their life prior to that.

We can deduce some rewriting of ‘The Dublin Mystery’ (1902) since its core premise is the disputation of a will from 1908 which sees gadabout and general reprobate Percival Brooks benefit from his father’s death and younger, more popular son Murray missing out.  As elsewhere there’s little to surprise the modern reader, but some keen details — it’s nice to see that the law courts had some scruples about the validity of “quoting the words of a man since dead to another man also dead” as legal evidence — and the way Brooks Jr. drops off the eligibility scale once the will is revealed are very piquant.

The parallel murder plot, too, feels like the draft of a far more complex scheme, and has about it a promising air of what the genre will go on to embrace.  Orczy wisely gives it about as much room as it deserves — given that we’ve well and truly established that all these crimes have gone unsolved, the resolution is never really in doubt — and so it’s all very well-balanced and decidedly less shaggy-dog than some of the others herein.  If you’ve never reads Orczy and are looking for some sense of how she acquits herself to the nascent detection genre, this is a pretty good place to start.

It seems a little excessive that the unparalleled outrage of ‘An Unparalleled Outrage’ (1902) is caused by a man being kidnapped, robbed of £10,000, and left tied to a chair in easily-discoverable circumstances — Victorian society had seen far worse by my estimation.  Anyway, again a couple of almost throwaway moments are what really make this, like the landlady of the boarding house where Mr. Francis Morton is discovered doing all she can in court not to “prejudice the reputation” of her establishment, and the establishment of another key principle in the annals of detective fiction:

“Now, my experience of criminal cases has invariably been that when a typewritten letter figures in on, that letter is a forgery.  it is not very difficult to imitate a signature, but it is a jolly sight more difficult to imitate a [sic?] handwriting through an entire letter.”

Again, we require the police to be exceptionally dense, and the pattern of sparsely-populated short stories pointing the way to the real villain is present, but there’s a pleasing up-ending of a Golden Age trope (er, before it was a Golden Age trope, I suppose…) and, as nearly always, Orczy’s prose is so clean and her setups such fun that you can’t help but be swept along.

Old Man 3

There’s an element of Freeman Wills Crofts and Christopher Bush’s alibi tricks in ‘The Regent’s Park Murder’ (1901), albeit stripped to their very basics and with a glaring flaw at the core.  Concerning John Ashley losing £1,500 to Aaron Cohen at their club, and then Cohen turning up dead outside his Regent’s Park address, there’s a degree of crossover and switchback in the narrative that hints at far more complex possibilities.  But despite the investigation “conducted with marvellous skill by Mr. William Fisher” the problems that crop up are rudimentary at best.

For one, you’d surely establish whether your suspect had an alibi before getting into court, and for another the gaps left in the timeline here seem too hilarious to overlook.  “When a murderer seems particularly foolish and clumsy…the police should be most guarded against pitfalls” would include oversights like that a murder at 3am could actually be committed by a man who has an alibi at 2am (yes, that’s correct — an hour earlier), or that a full hour was allowed for two men to walk across a small public square…right?  It’s a very pleasing story until these apparently insuperable difficulties supposedly result in legal bafflement, and then it just falls flat and can’t get up again.

The legal dispute of ‘The De Genneville Peerage’ (1902), established as it is through 15th-century twins and an inattentive nursemaid, again shows Orczy’s gleeful creativity in bending possibilities to fiction, and the story that results is more than up to this beginning.  Concerning a new set of twins of the same lineage, and the precedent set by their antecedents, the small matter of acquiring the title and security forms the background of a murder most unexpected and horrid.  What results won’t surprise the suspicious modern mind, and makes use of a Sherlock Holmes standfast that is rightly better known from that canon, but it’s as fun as anything else in this collection.

We also get the precedent of the down-at-heel investigator that would go on to become such a fixation of American private eye fiction in the lawyer Timothy Beddingfield: “I doubt if any case would have its chances improved by his conducting it” is the Old Man’s assessment, and we all know how the Washed-Up Investigator Who Has Unexpected Success doubtless came to represent the idiom “expect the unexpected”.  There’s nothing here to surprise these days, as I’ve said many times before, but it’s a hard heart that can’t enjoy this.

Finally, ‘The Mysterious Death in Percy Street’ (1901), “one of the cleverest bits of work accomplished outside Russian diplomacy”, which sees Mrs. Owen, the caretaker of a set of studios, found dead by indeterminate murder, suicide, or accident.  The Old Man is able to dispense with two of these — or, well, one of them, anyway — and show the motive and the actions of the criminal who is responsible for the woman’s death despite the only viable suspect having an alibi (secured, it must be said, by another classic piece of tomfoolery).

It’s unfortunate that the ending of this story is so well known, because it’s legitimately great (even if Polly is a little slow to realise the essential truth…and surely her inductive reasoning isn’t the surest way to that conclusion).  I’d even go so far as to suggest that it had a direct influence on one of the most talked-about books ever produced in the genre.  The only flaw is that Orczy’s own attempt at “He is a very little fellow, that’s true, and would do better at the Theatre des Varietes” is a non-starter…but that aside, great stuff.

~

Orczy isn’t talked about enough these days, and while many might put that down to the relative ease with seeing through her plots I’d suggest that such a concern hasn’t hit the popularity of Holmes and Father Brown.  I was half concerned that in coming back to these now I’d see them as thoroughly dismissible fluff of no import to the genre, but they’re compact, muscular, fast-moving stories that show the way for a great many of the trappings and principles that would be honed to perfection in the decades ahead.  Additionally, she writes extremely well — her prose has barely aged a day — and her character portraits are as nuanced as they need to be and not a word more; that such a creative and important stage in the development of GAD goes largely unacknowledged sees a real shame, and these Pushkin reprints are the perfect opportunity to remedy that.  For the curious unwilling to jump into 12 stories straight away, I recommend the following selection from the above to whet your appetite and hopefully induce you further in:

1. ‘The Robbery in Phillimore Terrace’
2. ‘The York Mystery’
3. ‘The Dublin Mystery’
4. ‘The De Genneville Peerage’
5. ‘The Mysterious Death in Percy Street’

~

The Teahouse Detective series by Baroness Orczy, reprinted by Pushkin Vertigo:

1. The Case of Miss Elliott (1905)
2. The Old Man in the Corner (1908)
3. Unravelled Knots (1926)

8 thoughts on “#677: “You must forgive me if I repeat that which you know already…” – The Old Man in the Corner [ss] (1908) by Baroness Orczy

  1. Read the entire Teahouse Detective series some years ago. I remember being surprised by how much I enjoyed them considering their relative obscurity. I was also kind of shocked by how the story ‘Suicide or Murder?’ concluded. Did not see that coming.

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    • The shame of that solution is how discussed it has become over the years — and maybe I’d have less of a problem with it if the stories overall felt like they were getting the credit and readership they deserve. Either way, these are great, and I urge people to read them if they haven’t. And, if at all possible, to but this paperback version rather than opting for the free copies online, since then maybe more of the influential classic short stories (Max Carrados, Raffles, etc.) might actually get the decent paperback reissues they deserve, too.

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        • Raffles is an interesting one, because…well, for spoilerful reasons. Maybe I’ll take a look at them in due course. Certainly I intend to work through more of these pre-GAD stories that showed glimmers of the way ahead: the rest of these Old Man stories, Bramah’s Max Carrados tales — might even be tempted back to some Martin Hewitt, so you know I’m serious 😄

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          • I have read some of the Max Carrados stories and they felt rather bland. Couldn’t get into them. I must have read some of Arthur Morrison’s works during my juvenile years, but I cannot recall even one of them. My brain has apparently buried those memories.

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          • Raffles is an interesting one, because…

            Thee are two things I particularly like about the Raffles stores. The first is Raffles’ ambiguous social position. He has the education of a gentleman but he isn’t one. He has neither the birth nor the social connections nor the money to sustain such a position. He is tolerated in society because of his fame as a cricketer, but he doesn’t belong. So his reasons for turning to crime are believable and complex – he is bitter and he both hates the upper class and desperately wants to join them.

            Secondly, he’s a true anti-hero. There’s a definite edge of cruelty, even a hint of sadism, in his treatment of Bunny. The truth is that Raffles is a natural bully, but a charming one. He’s a bit like an early version of Flashman.

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            • I’ve often wondered if it’s from the Raffles stories that the principle of “honour among thieves” was popularised, too. Because surely his sort of Old School Tie feeling about fellow criminals wasn’t espoused that commonly in literature before they were written…right? I don’t actually know, and would have to go back and reread them to see how the references play out — which I will do in due course, after Orczy and (if I can find them…) Max Carrados.

              Additionally, yes, his treatment of Bunny is appalling at times, but Hornung possibly justified this by his, er, decisions about how the Raffles stories play out and the reparation made…about which I probably shouldn’t say too much (let’s preserve at least one surprise for the unwary, eh?). I’m with you in finding the whole setup of that character very interesting, even if I don’t remember any standout stories. And, in fairness, I was reading them at a time when the serial character in short form really did not appeal to me, so a reappraisal is due.

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            • Raffles has to be one of the most influential characters in crime fiction. It’s difficult to imagine Blackshirt, the Lone Wolf, Lester Leith, the Saint or the Baron without Raffles. In fact in the ’20s and ’30s the gentleman thief/thief-turned-crimefighter was close to becoming the dominant trope in crime fiction.

              And Raffles remains the most psychologically complex and the most interesting as a character. He’s by far the most edgy of them all. Simon Templar is more ruthless and more violent but Raffles is more ambiguous.

              Which reminds me that I must try to get hold of some of Hornung’s stories of Stingaree the Bushranger.

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