Baroness Orczy Analysis


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

One student of crime literature calls Baroness Orczy’s stories about the Old Man in the Corner “the first significant modern stories about an armchair detective.” They are also rather unusual because of the purely cerebral interest the old man has in crime as a kind of mind game. The extent of his amorality is brought out in the story of “The Mysterious Death in Percy Street.” In this story, Polly Burton realizes, after the old man has laid all the evidence and a damning piece of evidence—a length of rope with expert knots in it—before her, that the old man is the murderer, reveling in his own cleverness.

All the stories about the Old Man in the Corner and his journalist friend, Polly Burton, are set in the A.B.C. Shop, where he habitually sits, as the baroness describes him in her autobiography, “in his big checked ulster [and] his horn-rimmed spectacles,” with “his cracked voice and dribbling nose and above all . . . his lean, bony fingers fidgeting, always fidgeting with a bit of string.” Either he or Polly brings up some mysterious death or crime that is currently intriguing the public. The events are outlined by the old man, who, when he is not sitting in his corner, is an avid reader of newspapers and spectator in courtrooms. He is unfailingly—and jeeringly—contemptuous of the police and their feeble efforts at untying the knots clever criminals tie. With Polly as a respectful but not necessarily credulous listener, he proceeds—once the facts as he sees them are presented—to point to the logical and necessary solution to the mystery. He scoffs at offering his insights to the police because he is sure that they would not listen to him, a mere amateur, and because he admires the clever criminal who can outwit the entire Scotland Yard. Thus, the emphasis is on the ingeniously planned crime and the intelligent, rigidly logical unraveling of it, not on psychology, human relations, or morality.

Baroness Orczy Bibliography

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Bleiler, E. F. Introduction to The Old Man in the Corner: Twelve Mysteries. New York: Dover, 1980. Appreciation and contextualization of Orczy’s contribution to mystery fiction.

Braybrooke, Patrick. Some Goddesses of the Pen. London: C. W. Daniel, 1927. Discussion of best-selling female authors, their literary prowess, and the source of their appeal to the public imagination. Provides background for understanding Orczy’s work.

Dubose, Martha Hailey, with Margaret Caldwell Thomas. Women of Mystery: The Lives and Works of Notable Women Crime Novelists. New York: St. Martin’s Minotaur, 2000. Essay on Orczy notes how she invented a Female Department to create a female officer for Scotland Yard.

Furst, Alan. Introduction to The Book of Spies: An Anthology of Literary Espionage, edited by Alan Furst. New York: Modern Library, 2003. Compares Orczy to such other espionage authors as Joseph Conrad, Graham Greene, and John le Carré.

Hanson, Gillian Mary. City and Shore: The Function of Setting in the British Mystery. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2004. Analyzes Orczy’s use of setting in the Old Man in the Corner series. Bibliographic references and index.

Kestner, Joseph A. The Edwardian Detective, 1901-1915. Brookfield, Vt.: Ashgate, 2000. This narrowly focused reading of British detective fiction compares Orczy to her fellow Edwardians.

Klein, Kathleen Gregory, ed. Great Women Mystery Writers: Classic to Contemporary. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994. Places the baroness within the lineage of great women mystery writers and analyzes her influence on her successors.