The Big Bow Mystery by Israel Zangwill

The regular sound of a Book People catalogue plopping onto the doormat has signalled doom for Mount TBR over the years, but I have started to exercise a little willpower and not buy up lovely looking collections at cheap prices in the hope that I’ll get round to reading them eventually (because mostly I don’t…) However, I was sorely tempted recently by a collection of three ‘Gaslight Crime’ novels reprinted recently; I restrained myself, because I already owned one of them, but when, as so often happens, the other two turned up in the local branch of The Works, I gave in – I really have no willpower with books!

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I was determined that I would read them soon, rather than let them languish on the pile, and so “The Big Bow Mystery” seemed ideal to pick up after the Bulychev as I really didn’t know what to read next. The Gaslight Crime books come with a generic introduction and also a specific one, and this book is touted as ‘the first locked room mystery’. That, of course, is not quite the case, and the introduction acknowledges that the first locked room story was Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and indeed this tale is referred to within the text of “Bow”; however the latter is regarded as the seminal first full length novel dealing with this particular method, and it certainly is a cracking read!

The “Bow” of the title is not, of course, a large piece of decorative ribbon; the mystery is set in the East End of London, where landlady Mrs. Drabdump discovers her lodger Arthur Constant foully murdered. Fortunately, one of her neighbours is a retired Scotland Yard detective, one George Grodman, whom she summons for help. Constant’s throat has been cut, but the door was locked from the inside, there is no weapon and no means of entry; yet Constant did not kill himself, so how was he murdered and by whom??

Needless to say, the press take up the story in a big way and the main suspect is Tom Mortlake, a popular and charismatic trade union leader who may have been a rival to Constant in love and work, despite their apparent friendship. There is also the poet Denzil Cantercot, who flits in and out of the action, constantly short of money; Lucy Brent, Mortlake’s fiancée, who has gone missing; and Edward Wimp of Scotland Yard, Grodman’s great rival. There are riots, red herrings, arrests and trials and the plot gets thicker and thicker till all is revealed at the end.

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“The Big Bow Mystery” was an enjoyable and fun read, which I think was probably not meant to be taken completely seriously…. The quirky Dickensian-style names give a hint of that from the very beginning, and there is plenty of broad humour throughout the book. Cantercot and his friend the cobbler Crowl, have little to do with the plot but provide confusion, but they’re very funny while they do this. Gladstone makes a guest appearance at one point, and the number of different solutions suggested are ingenious and entertaining.

Zangwill was an interesting man: from a family of Russian Jewish emigrants, he spent much of his life championing those he felt were oppressed, so it’s not surprising that his hero is a left-wing Union man and he has little swipes at Gladstone. I’m not sure if he wrote any other crime stories, but this one is a fabulous comfort read and I *am* glad I finally picked up a copy!

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