(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Although Baroness Orczy wrote more than thirty volumes of fiction, she is remembered principally as the author of the books about the Scarlet Pimpernel and to a lesser degree for her stories about the armchair detective in the corner of the A.B.C. Shop, Bill Owen. The first of these stories, “The Fenchurch Street Mystery,” appeared in the May, 1901, issue of The Royal Magazine and is typical of all of them.

“The Fenchurch Street Mystery”

Polly Burton, a journalist at The Evening Observer, is sitting in the A.B.C. Shop reading her newspaper and minding her own business when a curious little man irritably pushes his glass away and exclaims, “Mysteries! . . . There is no such thing as a mystery in connection with any crime, provided intelligence is brought to bear on its investigation.” Burton is, not surprisingly, somewhat taken aback by being spoken to by a total—and very strange—stranger, but even more so because he seems to have read her thoughts: She is reading an article in the paper dealing with crimes that have frustrated the police.

Such is the opening of the first story about the Old Man in the Corner. Each of the stories is structured in the same way: First, the reader is drawn into the mystery to be investigated and solved via a conversation in the A.B.C. Shop between the two series protagonists; next, the data of the case in question are presented, usually by Bill Owen; and finally, Owen presents a neat, logical solution.

In the exposition phase, the old man gives what almost amounts to an eyewitness account of the facts of the case. He often carries with him photographs he has taken or obtained of the protagonists of the case or, as is the case in “The Fenchurch Street Mystery,” copies of pertinent letters or other documents. The old man also spends a considerable amount of his time in courtrooms listening to cases and taking notes. He is always early enough to get a seat in the first row, enabling him to see and hear everything. His account of the facts is lively and full of colorful adjectives and verbatim quotations from witnesses. He makes sure to call Burton’s attention to those aspects of the case that seem to him pertinent to its solution.

Despite the old man’s care to present the case so that all an intelligent person has to do is make logical deductions, Burton, like the police before her, invariably has to give up and leave the unraveling of the mystery to her interlocutor. The cases discussed at the A.B.C. Shop are to everyone but Owen true mysteries that seem to resist all attacks. To Owen there are no mysteries. He is so cocksure about this that he irritates Burton, who insists that crimes the police have despaired of solving are, for all intents and purposes, insoluble. The old man demurs: “I never for a moment ventured to suggest that there were no mysteries to the police; I merely remarked that there were none where intelligence was brought to bear on the investigation of crime.” He has deep contempt for the public, the journalists covering crimes, and, especially, the police. The last phase of each story is the protracted denouement: the Old Man in the Corner demonstrating how, with a minimum of insight into the human psyche and a keen intelligence, he can make any case that to the rest of the world is opaque become crystal clear.


(The entire section is 1385 words.)