There’s so much depth in Golden Age detective fiction — it was a golden age, after all, irrespective of how narrow you make the window of admissible dates — that one could never read everything. Instead, we must find 60 or so authors who interest us, and hope to get a good coverage elsewhere. Well, if you’ve yet to read Baroness Emmuska Orcy’s Old Man in the Corner stories, I urge you to start as soon as possible.
The Case of Miss Elliott (1905) is the first collection of Old Man stories, and, though collected first, these 12 tales were written in 1904 and 1905 — after those in The Old Man in the Corner (1908), the second collection (I’ll give you a minute to reread that). Curiously, these are written in the first person where the earlier stories were rewritten from the first person into third person before being collected — and the third collection, Unravelled Knots (1925), also seems to be written in the first person, so who knows what the hell is going on? The format is largely the same regardless — a crime to which usually no solution has be found is discussed, and the Old Man untangles his own understanding of the evidence while tying and untying knots in pieces of string, all while sat in the corner of an A.B.C. Teashop in London.
Orczy deviates from the norm of the era, however, in never bringing justice home to the Old Man’s perceived wrong-doers. His conclusions are his and his alone, and good luck to those who got away with it; the police had the same data, and so an equal chance of coming to the ‘correct’ answer, and his interest stops there. As a consequence, since there’s never any confrontation of the criminals, the risk would be for Orczy to be slapdash in her plotting and evidence, but in fact the two collections I’ve now read demonstrate some of the finest short story plotting and detection you’re likely to find in the genre.
The eponymous lady in ‘The Case of Miss Elliott’ is the matron of a convalescent home in London who is found dead one evening beside the Thames, her throat slit and a knife grasped in her hand. Suspicion naturally falls on the doctor seen with her not ten minutes before, but since he denies his presence — and has, in fact, an alibi for the period in question — what could have happened? Some odd points, not least that Miss Elliott “had access to all kinds of poisons [and could] choose the least painful and most efficacious ones”, get the Old Man thinking and highlights an unexpected solution.
This is a notable story for a couple of reasons: firstly Orczy’s declaiming of the “committee of benevolent and fashionable people who understood nothing about business, and less still about the management of a hospital” — which seems particularly savage coming from a member of the nobility. The second is that it highlights just how damn well Orczy writes, with 115 years doing little to diminish the clarity of her plot or the evocative imagery of her prose:
There was as yet no actual charge against the fashionable and rich doctor, but already the ghostly bird of suspicion had touched him with its ugly wing.
‘The Case of the Poisoned Horse’ is less alluring a title than ‘The Hocussing of Cigarette’, but it’s what the story delivers: the Earl of Okehampton’s champion mare found stricken on the morning of The Big Race. Suspicion would fall on the trainer who had lived and breathed every moment with the horse in the preceding weeks, but since he was found drugged alongside his charge — and the drugged food was delivered to him by his fiancée — blame must be sought elsewhere.
Unconscious and normalised snobbery runs through British culture as a stick of rock, and casually rears its head in two lovely moments here — firstly that championship trainer Mr. Keeson, with “a general air of ancient lineage and the Domesday Booke about him”, being the one who will win the Earl a huge sum of money, may be “practically at the head of [his] profession” but it’s “not exactly that of a gentleman”, and secondly the fact that the magistrate overseeing the trial is “a great personal friend of the Earl”. Given conflicting testimony and the apparent guilt of someone with yet another cast iron alibi, I have to say this one turned out magnificently; the motive is divine, as is the manner by which the guilty party “threw a final bucketful of sand in the eyes of the police”.
‘The Tragedy in Dartmoor Terrace’ concerns elderly Mrs. Yule who, through “the desire of mapping out [her] son’s future entirely according to her own ideas” ends up isolating him and adopting another in his stead. On the verge of her estate being signed over to this adoptee, the old lady is found dead and the deed signed out to his benefit stolen. How does the appearance of a veiled woman claiming to be her son’s wife on the evening before her death factor in? And has there even been a murder anyway?
This is one of those subtle little stories that would never work today, and gets away with the key ideas being handled casually as if they are of no consequence. Note, too, the cynical tone carried over to the conclusion — Orczy really isn’t one for the establishment of status quo, nor saving face. There’s something almost Chestertonian in this preoccupation, which rears its head time and again throughout these stories — the idea of the hidden darkness staying hidden and the deeds of her criminals, charlatans, blackmailers, and other malefactors known only to them, often to the detriment of others. It’s fascinating.
Orczy presumably had an off day when titling ‘Who Stole the Black Diamonds?’, which concerns the theft of a valuable set of diamonds and their reappearance sometime later in a most unexpected place. Businessman James Wilson has agreed to buy them from the King of ‘Bohemia’ for £500,000 and their disappearance gives rise to rumours that he found “other very much less legitimate means of gaining possession of the gems”. And when they do turn up, well, sensation.
I think this is a far cleverer story than it will get credit for being. The workings seem a little odd due to how slowly news was able to spread in these days, and as such it would be possible to dismiss this more easily than it deserves. Not only is the penultimate line, in which the motive for all the back-and-forth is uncovered, hilarious, but the story itself is packed with charming details: Mrs. Vanderdellen appearing in court day after day wearing “exquisite gowns and ideal hats” is the sort of subtle touch that will stay with me for some years yet.
May those who lament Freeman Wills Crofts’ reliance on a train timetable read ‘The Murder of Miss Pebmarsh’ and repent. Blame for the murder of the eponymous spinster falls at the feet of her late-adopted niece “about whom more venturesome gossips went so far as to hint…had been on the stage” and whose financial expectations may have exceeded the means of the “old maid”. A reluctance to account for her whereabouts at the time of the murder, and a message scrawled by the elderly woman as she died, make her guilt seem inevitable, and yet…
This might be a very early attempt at the Dying Message, since the message itself does play a part in proceedings, and if expanded up to greater length there’s a nice subtle misdirection here that — on account of brevity — is instead just dropped in your lap. The reliance on, and reader’s ignorance of, what trains go where when stops this being fair, but then the tradition in which this was written was only beginning to wake up to fairness anyway. It’s an interesting read, but you have to wonder at the clearly hostile witness who Perry Mason wouldn’t even have allowed into the courtroom.
The discovery of a dismembered body rings up the curtain on the “tragedy in a prologue and three acts” of ‘The Lisson Grove Mystery’ — the murder of double amputee Mr. Dyke. The old man was heard arguing with his daughter and her beau but, since the neighbours could hear him stumping about on his crutches, he was known to be alive the following day when Amelia had caught a train to Edinburgh. Indeed, he was also seen by the charwoman Amelia had hired to take care of him in her absence…so while the prospect of a £4,000 legacy might provide motive, the opportunity is sorely lacking.
It’s not terribly difficult to see through the deception here, but Orczy writes so damn well that it’s difficult to mind. The only real issue I have with it is the ease with which a certain…labour-intensive activity could be achieved. You know the one, or you will once you’ve read this (hint: it’s the same problem one could have with what is widely considered John Dickson Carr’s best short story). And if this is what passed for being an “artist in crime” in 1905, we can be grateful that the Golden Age was only a decade and a half away, and would inspire far more creative approaches from all manner of felonious miscreants.
“No sooner is a murder, theft, or fraud committed in a novel or striking way, than this method is aged — probably in the next few days — by some other less imaginative scoundrel” — so says the Old Man at the start of ‘The Tremarn Case’, surely one of the most superbly imagined short stories of the form’s golden age. Essentially a reimagining of “the Tichborne case”, this sees the heir presumptive to a title unseated by the appearance of a son from an unknown marriage only to then be murdered in the back of a hansom.
The complexity of the plot here is something to behold, and every single feckless individual who’s ever crapped out a lazy short story should sit down, read this, and reappraise the decisions they’ve made in their life. It hits some hoary beats — “murderer heard talking to themself about their murder plan while in ear-shot of witnesses” needs to be retired along with “he was sleepwalking!” — but it’s also old enough to have received three doses of the COVID vaccine by now, so cut it some slack. Brilliant work.
It occurs to me that I might be taking Orczy for granted when I call ‘The Fate of the Artemis’ merely ‘fine’. Possibly it’s the way that it harks back to what feels like an older idiom of Buchanesque adventure story — these secret plans must reach a ship bound for international waters before it leaves, or lives will be lost! — or that the solution, even by the standards of this series, comes rather out of nowhere. Maybe it’s how it finds scraps of a torn up note and is able to state with virtual certainty what the missing words are (god, I hate that so much), I dunno.
However, as throughout this second tranche of stories, it’s wonderfully easy to read — see public opinion backed by “the crowd of amateur detectives who read penny novelettes and form conclusions of their own” — and there’s a core idea here that is wonderful, so it’s not as if it’s entirely without merit. So maybe this was the point where I stopped believing in the Old Man as an armchair detective (of sorts…) and instead realised how much he’s just Orczy’s avatar telling a story without having to tie it together too closely. Whatever it was, I came away slightly deflated.
“A foreign count, an ambitious matchmaker, and a credulous girl; these form the ingredients of many a domestic drama that culminates at the police courts” — so runs ‘The Disappearance of Count Collini’, possibly the only truly predictable story in the collection. Young Alice Checkfield, on the verge of achieving her majority and the £80,000 her father left for such a time, throws over her fiancé presumptive for the eponymous Count who then vanishes with said money “as effectually as if the sea had swallowed him up”.
You…already know where this is going, but Orczy is allowed a duffer after all the quality on show elsewhere. Of particular interest to me was the learning of a new word (“She gave her erstwhile fiancée [sic] his formal congé.”) and the use of the expression “over head and ears in love at first sight”. I presume this second one is akin to being doused in love, or dropped into a puddle (so deep that it comes over the head and ears…?) — assuming anyone is still reading at this point (and, I’ll be honest, I doubt many of you are), is this an expression you’ve come across before? Yeah, I could look it up online, but where’s the fun in that?
“Ayrsham village is a remote little place where a daily paper is unknown”, and so the discovery of local “sweet-stuff shop” owner Mat Newton that kicks of ‘The Ayrsham Mystery’ is quite a sensation. A convoluted history, encompassing the flight of his beautiful daughter to better herself and then her meek return, sets the background well, and the sense of a small community closely involved in everyone’s business is neatly imbued through the intelligent writing. Interesting to reflect how the ‘country’ tales do feel different to the ‘city’ ones.
In a weird sort of way this is a minor story that won’t distract many of you for too long, but it also has at its core one of those breathlessly subtle ideas that you allow to sweep you up without realising. It raises the attendant question of how much one will obfuscate for love, but taken on its own it has about it the air of Edmund Crispin’s short fiction — which, in many regards, could be considered the peak of this style of story. Also, goddamn, this is the second story in a row where fiancée is used when it should be fiancé. Is copy-editing not a thing any more?
The theft of a string of pearls forms the backbone of ‘The Affair at the Novelty Theatre’, with the added complication that the thief is apprehended and drops the loot…only for the pearls to be forgeries. Suspicion centres on the jeweller of some renown who last handled them, but the openness of his conduct, and an investigation lasting a full year, is unable to discover any wrong-doing and so the case remains a mystery.
This is shorter and sharper than probably all of the Old Man stories I’ve read to date, and no worse for it. The relatively straightforward problem and a few shenanigans with costumes (well, it is set in a theatre, after all) feels like the nascent stages of the Golden Age problems that were coming. Additionally, little details like Mr. Kidd taking the pearls to their actress owner immediately before a performance in the hope of scoring a free seat in the theatre are well-realised and fill out the milieu perfectly. And fiancée is used correctly! And then incorrectly twice.
Finally, and even more firmly in the complex Golden Age tradition that was born shortly hereafter, ‘The Tragedy of Barnsdale Manor’, wherein Mme. Quesnard is killed and her bureau ransacked for money ans jewels shortly after her niece and hostess has lost a huge amount of money playing bridge at a weekend house party. There’s a huge amount going on here, and Orczy does a great job of pointing out the fallacies in the automatic assumptions one makes before explaining it with more rigour than we’ve gotten elsewhere.
Some wonderfully insulting assumptions — that the keeping of wads of cash in one’s chamber is “why burglary is so rife and so profitable all over France” and that no woman of “refinement and education would have sprung on an elderly woman, like some navvy’s wife by the docks” — seem more knowing than quoting them out of context will admit, and the repurposing (well, plain stealing) of that most famous of Holmesian assertions only adds to the fun.
I have gone on quite long enough, so my congratulations to anyone who read this all the way through; if you’d like a ‘best five’ from this collection — and many of you wouldn’t — my picks would be:
- ‘The Hocussing of Cigarette’
- ‘The Tremarn Case’
- ‘The Ayrsham Mystery’
- ‘The Tragedy at Barnsdale Manor’
- ‘The Case of Miss Elliott’
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)