“There is no such thing as a mystery in connection with any crime, provided intelligence is brought to bear upon its investigation.”
An old man sits down at a table beside news reporter Polly and makes this startling observation at the beginning of this collection of twelve short stories. Throughout one may wonder what kind of background or education the nameless old man in the corner might have that contributes to his extraordinary abilities to solve such varied crimes. And more intriguingly what is the man’s obsession with tying and untying knots?
“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. She had disapproved of the man from the instant when he shuffled across the shop and sat down opposite to her…”
Miss Mary J. “Polly” Burton is a reporter for the Evening Observer enjoying a cup of coffee when the old man comments about the article she is reading about in the Daily Telegraph. A brief conversation ensues that brings up the subject of the Fenchurch Street Mystery.
In “The Fenchurch Street Mystery”, a woman reports that her husband William Kershaw has disappeared. Accompanied by a German friend, Karl Muller, the two tell Scotland Yard a curious tale. Kershaw knew of a man who took an assumed name–Smethurst–and amassed a sizable fortune. Kershaw may have been blackmailing Smethurst over an unsolved murder. After long years absent from England, Smethurst was returning to settle the matter once and for all. Then apparently Kershaw goes missing, his presumed body surfaces, and Smethurst is put on trial and acquitted.
“Francis Smethurst was discharged, of course; there was no semblance of evidence against him sufficient to commit him for trail.”
The old man in the corner, however, has seen through a clever ruse, and takes Polly point by point along his line of reasoning as it led him “to the only possible solution of the mystery.” He even places before her photos of the players involved in the mystery and leaves her to ponder his eminently reasoned solution.
Thus begins a curious relationship between this young reporter and the unnamed old man.
In “The Robbery in Phillimore Terrace”, Polly returns to the A.B.C. shop and encounters the old man. He shows her a photograph taken of the mews that relate to a robbery. Two houses were robbed in one evening. The police discover a tramp who clearly must be the culprit, but they can find no trace of the diamonds that were stolen. They let the tramp go and he returns to the “scene of the crime” and promptly disappears. The police are baffled that their only suspect could disappear into thin air.
But the man in the corner deduces exactly what happened and the trick that has been played.
The next story, “The York Mystery”, is perhaps the most reproduced, appearing in collections of popular and well-crafted mystery stories. It’s a fine representative example of the old man stories, though not necessarily the most clever.
It begins with the old man “itching to talk police and murders.” He “produced a bit of string, tied and untied it into scores of complicated knots, and finally, bringing out his pocketbook, he placed two or three photographs before her.”
Lady Skelmerton has married badly. Her husband Arthur likes to gamble on the ponies and Charles Lavendar had come to collect. Arthur’s gun was used to kill Lavendar and another, unsavory bookmaker gives evidence against Lord Skelmerton. However, Skelmerton has an unshakable alibi provided by a guest visiting his estate at the time of the murder.
“I cannot understand how the police could have been so blind when every one of the witnesses, both for the prosecution and defense, practically pointed all the time to the one guilty person,” says the old man, who then provides his solution.
All of the stories tend to share a common theme of obscured obviousness. An overlooked fact or person who is the key to the mystery, often a twist to the tale, and a satisfactory conclusion to each mystery which is told in three parts or chapters (depending on the edition). Most of the crimes deal with theft or murder. But though he offers a solution to each, the old man never assists the police in their investigation nor is any concrete evidence produced to verify guilt. In fact, in “The Edinburgh Mystery”, the old man asks Polly, “Have you ever felt real sympathy with a criminal or a thief?”
“Crime interests me only when it resembles a clever game of chess,” says the old man at one point, and he seems to admire the clever minds behind the crimes he relates.
In many of the stories, there is a sort of poetic justice that brings an end to the criminal’s machinations. This is in full force in “The Dublin Mystery”, in which two brothers vie for their father’s fortune, a will turns out to be a forgery, and the lawyer involved is murdered. The killer does not enjoy the fruits of his labor for long.
Of all the stories, however, it is the last, “The Mysterious Death in Percy Street”, that is the most strange and curious.
By now, Polly “had had many an argument with Mr. Richard Frobisher about the old man in the corner, who seemed far more interesting and deucedly more mysterious that any of the crimes over which he philosophized.” And now Polly and her beau Richard had been debating whether a woman’s death was accident, suicide, or murder. Naturally, Polly seeks out the old man for his thoughts.
The victim, Mrs. Owen, served as the live-in caretaker at a the Rubens Studios in Percy Street, where several artists worked. She was found dead after a bitterly cold night. The windows of her chamber had been left open, and her body partially covered in snow.
At the inquest, facts concerning Mrs. Owen had come to light. She had taken a fancy to a young artist, Arthur Greenhill. She’d been often in his company of late, and he is soon arrested for being concerned in the affair. It was assumed she had been murdered during the night. Except witnesses saw the woman alive at eight o’clock that morning, and the artist has an alibi for that time frame.
Arthur mentions that Mrs. Owen has a nephew who may or may not have tried to extort money from her. Money belonging to the woman had gone missing, but no trace of the money nor the nephew have been discovered. Yet strangely, the old man deduces that this mysterious nephew is the likely killer.
“Then suddenly… Polly remembered — the whole thing stood before her, short and clear like a vivid flash of lightning: — Mrs. Owen lying dead in the snow beside her open window; one of them with a broken sash-line, tied up most scientifically with a piece of string…”
When Polly looks up, the old man is gone, and the reader is left to wonder: just who is the mysterious old man in the corner? Is he in fact a murderer?
These charming stories feature a true armchair sleuth that might even rival Sherlock Holmes! There’s an almost conversational style to the narrative–especially as the old man relates the crimes–which can easily be read in an evening or two. And a cup of tea and scones are the perfect accompaniment to enjoying these clever, but often overlooked mystery stories.
Baroness Emmuska Orczy (1865-1947) is perhaps best known for her novel, The Scarlet Pimpernel, about a swashbuckling hero during the French Revolution. Though born in Hungary, Orczy wrote her novels in English, a language she learned at the age of fifteen!
Her stories about the old man in the corner first appeared in magazines. The stories were collected into three books: The Old Man in the Corner, The Case of Miss Elliott, and Unravelled Knots.
Twelve stories, originally written in 1901 to 1902, are included in The Old Man in the Corner. They are, in order: “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 Regent’s Park Murder”, “The De Genneville Peerage”, and “The Mysterious Death in Percy Street.”