Turn of the Century Salon: Baroness Orczy and The Old Man in the Corner

The Old Man in the CornerI must confess that, until quite recently, the only thing I knew about Baroness Orczy that she gave the world The Scarlet Pimpernel.

But I learned that she gave the world much more than that. She gave the world The Old Man in the Corner, who might just have been the world’s first armchair detective.

Emmushka Orczy was the daughter of Hungarian aristocrats. They took their family abroad, to Brussels, to Paris, and finally to London, to give them the education and the experience to stand them in good stead when they took their places in Hungarian high society.

It was in London that Emmushka was enrolled at art school; and it was at art school that she fell in love with the man who would become her husband. And some time later, when the couple were living in somewhat straightened circumstances, Emmushka noticed that their landlady’s daughter often received cheques in the post, in exchange for stories she sent in the post to magazines and newspapers. And she decided that she could do the same.

She decided to create a detective nothing like Sherlock Holmes. His first case was published in 1901 and it would be the first of many. And his cases would be collected and published in book form. The book I read was not the first to be published, indeed it wasn’t published until 1909, but it collects the earliest stories and so I thought it would probably be the best place to start.

The Old Man in the Corner spent his days in a London coffee-house, studying newspapers and court reports, and solving crimes that had baffled the police using simple logic and reasoning. And he talked over each case with a Lady Journalist.

Those crimes – fraud, theft, blackmail and, of course, murder – are diverse, but there is a common thread running through them all. They are crimes committed for gain – to preserve a reputation, to gain an inheritance, to rise in  the world … There were no crimes of passion, no habitual criminals in these pages.

But, given the constraints of the format, the twelve tales were wonderful diverse.

A Russian millionaire drowned in the Thames! A forged will! A woman found dead on a train! An audacious street robbery!

The locations moved from the streets of London, to Liverpool, Manchester, Glasgow, and  even over the Irish Sea to Dublin. The characters came from all walks of life:  a landlady who worked hard to get by; a young jewellers clerk, newly arrived from Germany; a poor young man taken up by a wealthy widow; one of the first generation of lady doctors.

I was pulled back to the period, I could see the places,  I could believe in the characters. And, crucially, I wanted to know what happened!

There was a certain pattern to most of the stories –  the criminal was never the most obvious suspect, the most obvious suspect was falsely accused, the criminal had an alibi but it could be broken – but there was enough variety, in the characters, the settings and the plot details to hold the attention.

It helped that the writing was simple and clear. And I always felt  that Emmushka was of places she knew, people she might have met.

The conversations between the Lady Journalist and the Old Man, who had buttonholed her first, and who had intrigued her sufficiently to keep her coming to visit her worked well.  It was hard to argue with his logic, but sometimes the events he described seemed a little too unlikely.

The Old Man had a low opinion of the police but it would be fair to say that on the whole he couldn’t prove his cases. You could say that way a weakness, or you could say that happens sometimes …

tocs-febAt the end of some stories I thought ‘that was ingenious’ but at the end of others I thought ‘that was unlikely.’

I’m not going to be rushing back for more, but I wouldn’t rule out picking up another volume one day either.

6 responses

  1. This is the first time I’ve heard of The Old Man in the Corner and I’m delighted at the prospect of reading a period detective that has on the one hand unlikely plot turns, but is on the other hand more realistic than your average Christie whodunnit, because a 100% success in solving/persecuting criminal cases doesn’t happen in real life either.

  2. I recently read this book, and two fellow bloggers led me to your great review. I notice that you didn’t mention what he did while he talked, and I didn’t either when I wrote (briefly) about the book. I was floored by the ending. Really. I thought this was such a good book. I’m now reading about Lady Molly of Scotland Yard. The Baroness should be much better known.

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