The Old Man in the Corner

The Old Man in the Corner - Baroness Orczy

The Old Man in the Corner – Baroness Orczy

I’ve had an exceedingly busy October. It started on the first with epic “1,000 year rain/floods” and then this past weekend I took part in the 30th Anniversary of my kung fu school.  In between the 1st and the 24th, there was mainly chaos, pandemonium, and a definite lack of sleep. Nevertheless, I was able to read this book, which I think is actually one that has slipped the memory of many contemporary readers.  I am glad I read it and I am giving it a generally favorable review here.

Having mentioned that I have been a wee bit busy, let me be honest and say I do not know the publishing history of this book. I suppose I could have bothered to do better with researching that, but I just did not. So, I am not sure if this is the first bunch of stories featuring the title character or the second. Also, there is something on the internet about the author reworking these stories – I have no idea about the extent of said reworkings.  None of that, however, truly matters when reading this book.

The author, Baroness Emma Orczy is certainly better known as the author of The Scarlet Pimpernel.  Now, I can tell you that this work was originally a play (1903) that the author also rewrote into a novel (1905).  I feel like “back in the day” (so, think 1950s – 1970s) this story was read a lot more and a lot more readers were familiar with it. I feel its popularity has waned quite a bit. I say all of this, but then must be obnoxious and admit that I have not read it, either.

  • The Fenchurch Street Mystery – 3 stars
  • The Robbery in Phillimore Terrace – 4 stars
  • The York Mystery – 4 stars
  • The Mysterious Death on the Underground Railway – 2 stars
  • The Liverpool Mystery – 3 stars
  • The Edinburgh Mystery – 2 stars
  • The Theft at the English Provident Bank – 4 stars
  • The Dublin Mystery – 4 stars
  • An Unparalleled Outrage (The Brighton Mystery) – 4 stars
  • The Regent’s Park Murder – 4 stars
  • The De Genneville Peerage (The Birmingham Mystery) – 3 stars
  • The Mysterious Death in Percy Street – 3 stars

Now, I hesitate to consider this a “collection” of short stories because the author has written them to be somewhat seamless. As if the structure of the collection is presenting a fluid timeline. I suppose one could read these stories in any order, but I don’t see any reason for doing that.

The entire work starts with a few sentences that basically explain and contextualize the rest of the book. Straightaway we meet the title character, known to us as “The Man in the Corner” and his interlocutor, Polly Burton.

The man in the corner pushed aside his glass, and leant across the table.

“Mysteries!” he commented.  “There is no such thing as a mystery in connection with any crime, provided intelligence is brought to bear upon its investigation.”

Very much astonished Polly Burton looked over the top of her newspaper, and fixed a pair of very severe, coldly inquiring brown eyes upon him.

That is how, more or less, every story begins.  The man in the corner comes across as cantankerous and slightly overbearing. Polly comes across as shrewd, strong-willed, and keen. Together, they make for an interesting scene, if you imagine it.

The structure of each story is the same:  the man randomly blurts out an assertion/comment regarding a relatively famous crime that has been committed.  His statements pique the interest of Polly Burton, who is a young journalist.  The man then retells the story of the crime and the investigation/court case associated with the crime.  Polly is a journalist for the Evening Observer, but the newspaper she is reading (in quote above) is the Daily Telegraph. Polly is decidedly proud of her status as a member of the British Press.

After Polly affixes the man with a icy glare, she authoritatively states that: “And yet, this article will tell you that, even within the last year, no fewer than six crimes have completely baffled the police, and the perpetrators of them are still at large.”

“Pardon me,” he said gently, “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 upon the investigation of crime.”

So, of course, Polly attempts to test this arrogant old man’s assertions.  She suggests the Fenchurch Street Mystery, and thus begins the push and pull nature of their conversations.  One of them puts forth a particular “mystery,” and the old man relates the details of the case. By the middle of the book, Polly is less hostile toward the old man, and eagerly anticipates his arrival and his discussion.

All of the mysteries are roughly the same in presentation. A case baffles the police because something does not quite add up. The crimes are Edwardian (circa. 1900 – 1915) and generally involve the middle and upper class. Some are more interesting than others, of course, but overall they are decent reads.  The old man leads Polly to a conclusion wherein it seems like the perpetrator of the crime is revealed, although not all the time does he actually name the criminal. And his “evidence” or proof is not always tangible.  His deductions are generally logical and reasonable, but not to the extent that it is watertight and defensible.

Still, before hard-core mystery lovers attack the author, let me just say that these are entertaining reads.  The context and characters are unique and she deserves praise for her setting and presentation of the stories. Also, Polly (though we do not get to learn enough of her) is not a pushover and deserves her own spin-off series, I think.  If you want to play with logic, go get Asimov and Lewis Carroll and Spinoza and wedge, tilde, instantiate yourself giddy.  Orczy does just fine providing us a fun read with interesting little story twists and points of view. The quirky nervous habit that the old man has of tying knots in string is fantastic for its symbolism and psychology. Well done, Orczy.

The setting of these stories kept interesting me. They take place in a branch of the Aerated Bread Company (often simply referred to as an ABC – which, yes, has different connotations here in USA South.)  I was curious, so I did research this part of the book.  The Aerated Bread Co. was founded in 1862 by Dr. John Dauglish and hinged on a new process of bread-making.  Two years later, the company opened teashops, starting with a location in the Fenchurch Street Railway Station (Cp. the first mystery story in the book).  Dauglish was a graduate of Edinburgh university and passed away in 1866.  His efforts and experiments in bread-making are interesting, though outside the scope of this review. Similarly, the relevance of teashops is also a good study. Sadly, the company was bought out in 1955 and that gobbler corporation closed the business in the 1980s.

Overall, I really like the presentation and setting of these stories. I really want spinoff series for both Polly and the old man. I am tickled by many of the details throughout and I had fun reading these. Recommended for people who have busy Octobers and anyone seeking Edwardian-era things.

3 stars
average: 3.25

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