Israel Zangwill Mystery & Detective Fiction Analysis
In the lore of mystery and detective fiction, Israel Zangwill’s reputation, based on one classic work, is secure. He is the father of the locked-room mystery tale, a subgenre launched by Edgar Allan Poe in short-story format but made especially attractive by Zangwill’s versatile, full-length rendering. Written in 1891, when Zangwill was at the virtual beginning of his career, The Big Bow Mystery was serialized in the London Star, published a year later in book form, and finally collected in The Grey Wig: Stories and Novelettes (1903). More than a whodunit cipher or a pure exercise in inductive reasoning, Poe’s “ ratiocination,” Zangwill’s novel brings together the intellectual acumen of the scientific sleuth with the inventive imagination of a poet. At the same time, the novel offers a perceptive and sociologically valid picture of working-class life in late Victorian England, replete with well-defined portraits of fin de siècle London characters. Many of the issues and ideas distinguishing the turbulent 1890’s are mentioned or explored in the novel.
The Big Bow Mystery
As a writer with roots in the ghetto, Zangwill theorized that it was essential to reveal the mystery, romance, and absurdity of everyday life. In The Big Bow Mystery he employs a photographic realism to render the human comedy. With vivid attention to detail, he depicts the truths inherent in class relationships, the tensions in political realities, and the passions in reformist clamor. Influenced himself by the pulp novels or “penny dreadfuls” of the time, Zangwill was perhaps paying homage to them through loving parody. In the main, however, the literary sources of the novel are Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Dickens, and Robert Louis Stevenson, whose romances of the modern and the bizarre, particularly The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), had caught Zangwill’s attention.
The characters in The Big Bow Mystery are Dickensian in name as well as behavior: Mrs. Drabdump, a hysterical widowed landlady who, with retired Inspector Grodman, discovers the body of the victim; Edward Wimp, the highly visible inspector from Scotland Yard who undertakes the well-publicized investigation; Denzil Cantercot—poet, pre-Raphaelite devotee of the beautiful, professional aesthete—who has ghostwritten Grodman’s best-selling memoirs, Criminals I Have Caught; Tom Mortlake—union organizer,...
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