THE BIG BOW MYSTERY

By Israel Zangwill

Reviewed by Steven Pirie

The widow Mrs Drabdump cannot rouse her lodger Mr Constant from sleep. His bedroom door remains locked and despite her best efforts there's no sign of life within. She calls upon retired sleuth Mr Grodman for assistance, and when he breaks down the bedroom door and finds Mr Constant lying upon the bed with his throat slit, we are asked is it suicide or murder?

But how can it be suicide? The position of the body, particularly the hands, and the nature of the wound suggests suicide would be impossible. And there is no razor/weapon present that could have been used. Death is deemed instantaneous. There's no blood upon the floor, so how could the victim have removed the blade from the scene before his suicidal death?

Equally, how can it be murder? The bedroom door is locked and bolted from the inside. Similarly, all windows remain locked, too. The chimney is so small not even a child could escape that way.

Having set up the murder, the book embarks on presenting the lives and doings of a small number of would-be suspects. There is an accused. There is a trial. There is a conviction. But there's also a nicely twisted ending full of irony.

I must admit, this is a delicious mystery set up so rapidly. First published in daily instalments in London's The Star newspaper (August 24th to September 4th, 1891), Zangwill later turned the story into the first novel length 'locked room' mystery of its day. Such did it capture the public's imagination, there was a constant stream of letters to the newspaper suggesting endings and whodunits (all of which Zangwill declared to be incorrect).

A brave undertaking, since in his introduction Zangwill admits he changed the murderer's identity and plot several times in the writing; brave considering the careful foreshadowing required in such a mystery else the reader feels cheated by sudden unannounced endings. As a writer myself, I know it's easy to paint oneself into a corner plot wise, but to do so deliberately suggests a masochistic trait to these 'locked room' authors.

The book is a fast read, despite the Victorian style, though it must be said Zangwill exhibits more brevity in his writing than many of his day, whilst still keeping a certain eloquence not so fashionable today. I read the book easily in two sessions, being quickly drawn into the fine characterisation and eager to learn who the murderer was. There're lashings of humour in there, too--one can easily see the befuddled, dithering Mrs Drabdump drawing howls of laughter with her confused mannerisms when called to the witness stand, and indeed each character has his/her own quip here and there just to merry things along.

All in all, a very enjoyable book.

The Big Bow Mystery by Israel Zangwill. Published by Dybbuk Press, tpb, 193pp (including the additional short story Cheating the Gallows) $13/£8. Available from various online outlets, including Amazon UK and Amazon.com

Website: - www.dybbuk-press.com


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