The Big Bow Mystery
First published in the UK, 1892 by Henry
Source: Project Gutenburg
The Big Bow Mystery is generally regarded as the first fully-fledged example of that staple of the mystery genre, the locked-room story. There are numerous antecedents (notably Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue), but this short novel of 1892 brought together most of the typical elements for the first time.
Israel Zangwill’s other great contribution to literary history was his play The Melting Pot, which did much to capture the American immigrant experience and was a huge hit in its time. Zangwill’s nickname was the ‘Dickens of the ghetto’, and in fact the opening to The Big Bow Mystery is Dickensian:
There are mornings when King Fog masses his molecules of carbon in serried squadrons in the city, while he scatters them tenuously in the suburbs; so that your morning train may bear you from twilight to darkness.
Instead of Dickens’ famous Megalosaurus waddling up Holborn Hill, the fog clears to reveal only a perpetually disappointed widow clearing her grate. Who is a brilliant creation, by the way – if you read nothing else of this book, read the first chapter.
Mrs Drabdump, of 11 Glover Street, Bow, was one of the few persons in London whom fog did not depress. She went about her work quite as cheerlessly as usual.
The widow Drabdump is landlady to two social activists. Arthur Constant, B.A. – ‘white handed and white shirted’ is a middle-class do-gooder held in high regard by everyone in the slums of Bow. Tom Mortlake is a compositor-turned-union-leader. On this foggy morning Mrs Drabdump wakes up to find Mortlake gone and Constant suspiciously quiet behind his locked bedroom door.
She fetches local celebrity, Inspector Grodman, retired hero of Scotland Yard and best-selling author of Criminals I Have Caught, to break open the door and reveal the horribly slain body of Constant. No murderer could possibly have left the room, and yet Constant clearly did not kill himself. After a short period of official confusion, the Coroner’s summing-up describes the mystery perfectly.
The answer, then, to our first question, Did the deceased commit suicide? is, that he did not.
The answer then to our second inquiry – was the deceased killed by another person? – is, that he was not.
In true Victorian fashion, the ‘Big Bow Mystery’ becomes a matter for prurient public debate, with the suicide and murder camps arguing their cases in the letters pages of the newspapers. Additional commentary is provided for the reader by local wastrel Denzil Cantercot and his friend (and long-suffering landlord) Peter Crowl.
The story is driven by the competition between two famous detectives, ex-Inspector Grodman and current Inspector Wimp. The two men loathe each other behind a façade of friendly rivalry, and both represent different camps in the public debate.
Denzil knew of Edward Wimp, principally because of Grodman’s contempt for his successor. Wimp was a man of taste and culture, Grodman’s interests were entirely concentrated on the problems of logic and evidence […] Wimp with his flexible intellect, had a great contempt for Grodman and his slow, laborious, ponderous, almost Teutonic methods.
Obviously, the true story is revealed at the end, and the ending surprised me in terms of the simplicity of the solution, whodunit, and why. The Big Bow Mystery is a light read and well worth the investment of a few hours, especially if you are a fan of Dickens’ funny bits. I can do no better than quote Zangwill’s own review of the book in his introduction:
“The Big Bow Mystery” seems to me an excellent murder story, as murder stories go, for, while as sensational as the most of them, it contains more humor and character creation than the best.
Mary Reed at Mystery*File: 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.
enotes: The Big Bow Mystery offers a graphic picture of late Victorian life in a seething London working-class neighborhood. Zangwill effectively combined social realism of the streets with a realistic depiction of the criminal investigative process.