The Big Bow Mystery, by Israel Zangwill

Big Bow cvr

Israel Zangwill’s 1892 story is billed as the first novel-length ‘locked room’ mystery.  Mrs Drabdump runs a lodging house at Bow, in London’s East End.  Early on a cold December morning she needs to wake one of her lodgers, Arthur Constant, but oversleeps.  Constant is a labour leader and has to make a speech to some ‘discontented tram-men’.  When she does knock repeatedly on his door she cannot rouse him and eventually begins to panic.

Alarmed, she runs across the road to a neighbour, the renowned Scotland Yard detective George Grodman, now retired and making a comfortable living as a landlord and the best-selling ‘author’ of the ghost-written memoir Criminals I Have Caught.  He forces Constant’s door and Mrs Drabdump sees the poor man is lying in bed with his throat cut.  It definitely was not suicide, but with the windows locked, the door bolted from the inside and the chimney too narrow to permit entry, how could a murderer have accomplished the deed?

Further, why should this likeable young man, who worked tirelessly for the common good, be slaughtered?  There is a suspect, a rival labour leader who lives in the same house but who lacks a strong alibi for the likely period of the murder.  Edward Wimp of Scotland Yard is given the case, but Grodman, who detests Wimp, a loathing cordially returned, takes a keen interest in the investigation.  Wimp makes an arrest, and much of the second half of the story is devoted to the trial, before the final revelation.

The Big Bow Mystery was written in a fortnight as a serial for the Star newspaper but betrays little sign of haste.  It combines the intriguing mystery with a gently satirical eye.  There is social commentary, about the labour movement (with careerist competition among activists), freeloading penny-a-line hacks, faddists who decry fads but fail to recognise their own, and aestheticism bumping up against the grubbiness of real life, or ‘the true’.  This is the East End depicted from the inside, not patronisingly by a middle-class litterateur but with humour and sympathy.

With a slightly postmodern touch the story includes a cameo by William Gladstone, who attends a meeting to eulogise the dead man and witnesses a spectacular arrest.  Zangwill justified his appearance by claiming in a note that ‘The introduction of Mr Gladstone into a fictitious scene is defended on the ground that he is largely mythical.’  One wonders what the GOM, who was still alive, made of it.

As well as being entertaining, Zangwill raises important legal issues.  The prosecution during the trial suggests possible solutions which are credible but ignore the role of coincidence.  They lead in the wrong direction, indicating the danger of relying on circumstantial evidence.  The murderer confessing to the Home Secretary makes the point that when looking at the threads which led to the crime, some were part of the pattern (drugging the victim) while some occurred by accident but could have been interpreted as intentional (the landlady oversleeping).  It is easy to assume that all aspects are relevant, and therefore head down the wrong path when attempting to trace causal links.

An afterword in the 1895 reprint includes a letter Zangwill wrote to the editor of the Star immediately after serialisation was complete.  In it he claimed he was so determined that nobody should guess the identity of the murderer that he adapted the plot as it progressed from week to week, eliminating characters as the murderer whenever a reader suggested that person, so eventually he was left with only one person nobody had fingered, and made him the culprit.  He rather ruefully notes how this joke had been taken seriously, when such a narrative requires careful plotting which prevents deviation once set in motion.

According to Zangwill’s formula, ‘the Indispensable condition of a good mystery is that it should be able and unable to be solved by the reader, and that the writer’s solution should satisfy’, which sums up the modern detective novel.  The reader has all the clues that are necessary to identify the criminal before the solution is presented, but if the author has done a good job should still be surprised, and only when looking back see the clues which were carefully dropped in but missed among the red herrings.

The reader is likely to be led away from The Big Bow Mystery’s solution by over-thinking it, speculating on ways the murderer could have got out of the room.  What is offered may disappoint after expecting something more subtle.  But that is down to us, and Zangwill cannot be blamed for pulling the rug from under our expectations, even if we suspect that it was a method that was far from fool proof.  I think I would agree with the New Zealand reviewer Zangwill mentions who found the plot ‘more ingenious than convincing’, but there is much here to enjoy beside a detective story.

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