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.