Crime Fiction Alphabet: Letter O

Kerrie’s Crime Fiction Alphabet has reached the letter O.

I was surprised quite recently to discover that Baroness Orczy had not only written books about the Scarlet Pimpernel, but had also written crime fiction.

Emmuska Orczy (1865 – 1947) was born in Hungary and she and her family moved to London in 1880, where she went to the West London School of Art and then Heatherley’s School of Fine Art.  Several of her paintings were exhibited at the Royal Academy. She married Montague MacLean Barstow in 1894 and encouraged by him, she began writing in 1900. As well as the Scarlet Pimpernel stories she wrote mysteries for the Royal Magazine and Cassell’s Magazine. She created one of the earliest female detectives in a collection of short stories about Molly Robertson-Kirk – Lady Molly of Scotland Yard in 1910.

The Old Man in the Corner

The Old Man in the Corner, Greening & Co. 1910, Design by H. M. Brock. From Flickr

Her book of short stories, The Old Man in the Corner features one of the earliest armchair detectives. It was first published in 1909, although she had written the stories before that and published them in magazines. The ‘Old Man’ sits in the corner of an A. B. C. (Aerated Bread Company) tearoom and relates the mysteries to Polly Burton of the Evening Observer. She was amused by his appearance:

Polly thought to herself that she had never seen anyone so pale  so thin, with such funny light-coloured hair, brushed very smoothly across the top of a very obviously bald crown. He looked so timid and nervous as he fidgeted incessantly with a piece of string; his long, lean and trembling fingers tying and untying it into knots of wonderful and complicated proportions. (Location 47 of 2760)

Tying knots in a piece of string seems to be essential to his deductive powers, for as he unravels the knots so he solves the mysteries. His philosophy is:

There is no such thing as a mystery in connection with any crime, provided intelligence is brought to bear upon its investigation.  (Location 29)

Very like Hercule Poirot, I thought, but the resemblance ends there. The Old Man’s sympathies are with the criminal rather than the police; he solves the mysteries just for the love of doing it, to discover the motive and method. He doesn’t pass his information onto the police and in most of the cases there is still an element of doubt.

The mysteries included in The Old Man in the Corner are:

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

They seem to be the most baffling cases that the police had been unable to solve, involving murder, blackmail, forgeries and puzzling crimes. I enjoyed reading them, although they don’t overtax the brain.

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 302 KB
  • Print Length: 186 pages
  • Sold by: Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B0084BMM6W
  • Source: my own copy
  • My Rating 3/5


8 thoughts on “Crime Fiction Alphabet: Letter O

  1. I read one short story featuring the old man in a short story collection. I agree with you that it was entertaining without overtaxing the brain. I am planning to read the other old man in the corner short stories too!


  2. I very much agree with this assessment. I guess at the time of publication the stories were more striking than they seem today. And the idea of the armchair detective has proved an enduring one.


  3. Margaret – Oh, that’s so interesting! I didn’t know that Baroness Orczy had written a collection of short crime fiction stories. Just goes to show you I need to brush up on my early crime fiction.


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