A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Edward D. Hoch:

ISRAEL ZANGWILL – The Big Bow Mystery. Rand McNally, US, hardcover, 1895. Previously published by Henry, UK, hardcover, 1892. Reprinted in many anthologies of vintage detective fiction, both hardcover and soft.


   Film (with partial sound): FBO, 1928, as The Perfect Crime (with Clive Brook & Irene Rich; director: Bert Glennon). Also: RKO, 1934, as The Crime Doctor (with Otto Kruger & Karen Morley; director: John Robertson). Also: Warner Bros., 1946, as The Verdict (with Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre & Joan Lorring; director: Don Siegel).

   British novelist and playwright Israel Zangwill made only one excursion into the mystery field, at the age of twenty-seven, when he was invited by the London Star to write a “more original piece of fiction” for them. The result, which ran serially in the newspaper during 1891, was certainly original — the first locked-room mystery novella.

   There had been locked-room mysteries before, in the works of Edgar Allan Poe and Joseph Sheridan LeFanu, but both had involved elementary trickery with windows and the reader had no real opportunity to solve the puzzle. The Big Bow Mystery, written partly as a parody of detective stories, is a classic whodunit that still reads quite well today.

   Whether or not retired police inspector Grodman can really qualify as a Classic Sleuth may be open to question, but from the moment he is summoned by Mrs. Drabdumb to break down the locked door of Arthur Constant’s bedroom, it is clear we are witnessing the birth of a classic mystery situation.


   John Dickson Carr once observed that Israel Zangwill invented a fictional device that has since been used in many forms, “on a ship, in a ruined house, in a conservatory, in an attic, and even in the open air.” But Zangwill’s first version still remains one of the best, and rightly established him as the father of the locked-room mystery.

   Scores of later mystery writers were intrigued by the plot possibilities suggested by Zangwill’s work, and went on to create endless variations on the locked room and the impossible crime.

   Running just over 30,000 words in length, about half as long as the average mystery novel today, The Big Bow Mystery has rarely been published as a separate volume in this century. It appears in Zangwill’s 1903 collection The Grey Wig. More recently it was included in Hans Stefan Santesson’s 1968 anthology The Locked Room Reader (Random House) and David Willis McCullough’s 1984 anthology Great Detectives (Pantheon).

   Reprinted with permission from 1001 Midnights, edited by Bill Pronzini & Marcia Muller and published by The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, 2007.   Copyright © 1986, 2007 by the Pronzini-Muller Family Trust.

Note:   The Big Bow Mystery was previously reviewed on this blog by Mary Reed. In his comments following my review of The Big Clock, David Vineyard pointed out that “The idea of the hero hunting himself […] all dates back to Israel Zangwill’s The Big Bow Mystery […] a pioneering locked room classic that touches on the theme.”