Having thoroughly enjoyed the first two collections of Baroness Orczy’s stories about the Old Man in the Corner, I was anticipating a similarly enjoyable time with the third and final collection, Unravelled Knots (1925). The third and final collection had other plans…
The more Golden Age detective fiction I read, the more interested I become in the developmental stages of the genre. Which is not to say that GAD itself no longer appeals — even if I do find less and less from that era which genuinely excites me these days — but rather the wellspring of creativity that burst forth seems like the release of pressure after a long, slow period of realisation, and the process of that realisation is intriguing. In much the same way that the four-minute mile proved revolutionary to the history and development of athletics, the almost childlike innocence of some of the schemes deployed in pre-GAD works is fascinating because of how much devilish complexity would spring forth from such barren, apparently unpromising ground.
In this regard, the first two collections in this trilogy were precisely what I would expect from the era: the rude abruptness of the Old Man as Polly Burton sits, mesmerised, at his ability to deduce that some very basic chicanery is responsible for hiding a quite frankly glaringly obvious ‘surprise’ solution, and the window these stories provided on the criminal proclivities of the affluent classes (Dickens having chronicled the working classes fairly comprehensively). It seemed right that a member of the Hungarian nobility would have insight to offer on English society as a background to the nefarious, avaricious minds behind organisations with altruistic public facades; diamonds went missing, foreign nobility were themselves suspected, intrigue abounded, a plucky housemaid probably overheard something crucial. It was a simpler time, and the stories are better for it.
Unravelled Knots was chosen as the title here as a reference to the nameless Old Man’s tendency to sit tying and untying complex tangles in a piece of string while he holds forth, but could arguably be a comment on the stories and schemes themselves. The earliest stories herein date from 1923, meaning that the Old Man was inactive for 18 years, and, while my researches lead me to believe that they’re of a comparable length to Orczy’s earlier efforts, the resulting tales — or the seven I could bring myself to read — feel heavy-footed and cumbersome in a way that the first two collections avoided. Part of the difficulty could be their sheer damn transparency, with really nothing coming as a surprise narratively, but since that’s always been the case there must be some other factor rendering these tales so tedious.
Yes, it could be me, but I picked up one of the earlier collections and read a few pages at random and there’s a real lightness and fizz to the prose there which is enjoyable to read. Here, we get sentences like:
Rightly or wrongly, the donors of this princely gift feared that a certain well-known political organisation on the Continent would strive by every means in its power, fair or foul, to prevent this token of English goodwill from reaching the recipient, and also, as it chanced to happen, there had been during the past few months a large number of thefts of valuables on continental railways, and it became a question who should be entrusted by the committee of subscribers with the perilous task of taking the necklace over for presentation; the trouble being further enhanced by the fact that in those days the insurance companies barred one or two European countries from their comprehensive policies against theft and petty larceny, and that it was to one of those countries thus barred that the bearer of the £15,000 necklace would have to journey.
It would be mendacious to give the impression that all these stories are composed of 143-word sentences, but that sesquipedalian tone of a nervous Jane Austen minor character repeatedly clearing his throat while trying to express his feelings for a landed gentleman’s daughter in the D-plot of a more interesting novel is maintained throughout. Time and expectations have moved on (1923 still far from the peak of GAD, of course) but Orczy’s writing has, if anything, regressed, and those 18 years have done nothing to improve her tendency to leave huge gaps at the core of the logic which resolves some of these tales. A disagreement over timings is key to ‘The Mystery of the Khaki Tunic’ (1923), but come the end there’s still the small matter of a half-hour period unaccounted for that would allow multiple, Poisoned Chocolates Case-esque interpretations to be spun from the same data. And let’s not get into how eerily this relies on the Cochran Defence long before the Cochran Defence was a thing…
‘The Mystery of the Ingres Masterpiece’ (1923) poses the baffling question of how a painting can be in two places at once, and expects the answer “One of them is a forgery” to confound and amaze us, as well as the mention of someone being “something of an artist” being sufficient to explain away how this note-perfect (dab-perfect?) reproduction came into being. ‘The Mystery of the Pearl Necklace’ (1923) has one character so eager that a couple transporting the eponymous jewellery across Europe know how terrible and untrustworthy European hotels are he…cables them and arranges that they stay several nights in a European hotel so he can impress this upon them. ‘The Mystery of the Russian Prince’ (1923) sees a woman break off her engagement, meet a Russian prince who is only able to meet her about ten minutes at a time, become engaged to him, and then profess amazement when he disappears heading to the wedding via the same train that is also carrying he ex-fiancé — the gaslighting in this one being so damn intense that I’m surprised the lamps across the entire country didn’t dim.
And it’s not that there are no points of interest. Given the poor state of policing discussed in The Red Thumb Mark (1907) by R. Austin Freeman that I review on Thursday, it’s interesting to note the Old Man rallying against trials where “blunder after blunder is committed and the time of the courts wasted without either judge or magistrate, let alone the police, knowing where the hitch lies” in ‘The Mystery of the Dog’s Tooth Cliff’ (1923). Equally, the sniffy side of British society can be no more neatly observed than in the one-time screen siren who imagines that marrying money and throwing a successful party will see her completely accepted by her new peers. And some lovely character sketches emerge — c.f. Lord Polchester, who “was such a nonentity in his own household, such a frivolous fool, and, moreover, addicted to drink and violent fits of temper, that those who knew him easily realised how a sensible business man…would avoid any personal explanations with him”, or Aaron Levinson as “a kind of good-natured beast of burden, who would do all the work and never receive a ‘thank you’ in return” — but are often lost as soon as they shine through, overwhelmed by molassess-slow prose on the way to obvious conclusions.
G.K. Chesterton was never one to balk at writing more Father Brown stories when finances demanded it, and is to be admired for the frankness with which I understand he admitted as much. Given how old these stories feel, and how uninspired Orczy comes across after the vigour displayed in her earlier writing, it’s difficult not to wonder if the 18 year hiatus, in which she wrote much more than just stories of Sir Percy Blakeney, dulled somewhat the innovation she brought to this particular genre. Completionist fever dictates that I shall, at some point, take on the second half of this collection, but I doubt I’ll write about it here; knowing my luck, the final six stories are genre-forming masterworks…but, for now, I think this tired, old man needs to rest.
The Teahouse Detective series by Baroness Orczy, reprinted by Pushkin Vertigo: