Tue 7 Oct 2008
ISRAEL ZANGWILL – The Big Bow Mystery.
Henry, UK, hardcover, 1892. Rand McNally, US, hardcover, 1895. (The latter is shown.) Reprinted often, either alone or in various anthologies, including the following (all shown): W.B. Conkey Company, US, hardcover, 189? Three Victorian Detective Novels, edited by E. F. Bleiler (Dover, trade pb, 1978). Great Detectives: A Century of the Best Mysteries, David Willis McCullough, editor (Pantheon, US, hc, 1984).
The Big Bow Mystery opens on a frigid, foggy December morning as the Dickensian-named Mrs Drabdump, a widow letting out rooms in her home in Bow, east London, cannot get lodger Arthur Constant to open his bedroom door. She becomes so alarmed she goes to ask for help from George Grodman, a retired detective who lives a few doors down the street, and he forces the door open.
The horrible sight within is described by the coroner as “the deceased lying back in bed with a deep wound in his throat… There was no trace of any instrument by which the cut could have been effected: there was no trace of any person who could have effected the cut. No person could apparently have got in or out.”
Needless to say the case causes a sensation, the more so as Constant, though wealthy, was devoted to helping the working class.
Fellow lodger and friend Tom Mortlake, a man of similar mind and “hero of a hundred strikes”, had left early that morning for Devonport Dockyard to help the dockers there. A second sensation is caused when Mortlake is arrested at the Liverpool Docks where he was making enquiries about steamers to America.
He is released when it is learnt he was in Liverpool to seek news of a friend about whom he was uneasy. His innocence is supported by a cabby who drove him to London’s Euston Station that morning, who confirms he picked up Mortlake at about 4.30 am, well before the estimated time of Constant’s death. Even so, more doubts are raised when Mrs Drabdump reveals at the inquest that Mortlake and Constant had quarrelled the night before the latter’s death.
The retired detective Grodman and Edward Wimp of Scotland Yard both undertake investigations and so the deciphering of The Big Bow Mystery begins. To add a bit of spice to the teacake, the men detest each other.
In the course of a lengthy narrative we hear of Denzil Cantercot, a poet with secrets — why he gives money he’s just received to two housemaids before it’s even warm in his pocket for example — and Mortlake’s fiancee, Lucy Brent, who has apparently disappeared.
There’s some plot padding, which is not to say the story is uneventful: Gladstone appears at an event that ends in a riot and ultimately Mortlake goes on trial for the murder of his friend. But did he really do it and if he did, how it is to be proved?
My verdict: One of the burning questions in The Big Bow Mystery is how the culprit carried out the crime, given the bedroom door was not only locked but also bolted on the inside.
Various theories are suggested in letters to the press, including a monkey with a razor coming down the chimney, the removal and replacement of a window pane or a door panel, a culprit hiding in the wardrobe who managed to escape unnoticed when the door was broken down, and secret passages and trapdoors!
As for the missing weapon, was it a candlestick or similar common item of bedroom furniture, fitted with a hidden blade after the fashion of a swordstick — or could the departed have been a suicide and somehow swallowed the weapon before expiring?
After various red herrings are thrown back into the briny and trips into investigative cul de sacs are reversed, the culprit turns out to be the least likely suspect, who committed the crime for a particularly vile reason.
The explanation of how a murder could be committed in a locked room is clever, hinging partly on the physical arrangements and partly on a psychological point, the clew to which is given in fair fashion early in the novel.
If readers don’t mind Zangwill’s somewhat rambling and wordy style The Big Bow Mystery will be of interest. Published in the early 1890s, well before the beginning of the Golden Age, it is also said to be the earliest true example of the locked room mystery.