Published in 1908, The Old man in the Corner by Baroness Orczy, is a neat collection of crime stories. The book’s namesake is the Old Man (sometimes referred to as the scarecrow for his careworn appearance). He sits in the corner of the Aërated Bread Company cafe and regales Miss Polly Burton, of the Evening Observer, with his thoughts on the various unsolved crimes that have plagued the police.
The old man is a peculiar character. He is forever playing with a piece of string which he ties into highly intricate knots and then unties. He wears a loud checked suit, horn-rim spectacles, and has an obvious comb-over. All of which amuse Miss Burton, greatly.
Not so whimsical is his steadfast refusal to go to the police with his ruminations and findings. He figures that if the “blackguard” is sharp enough to evade Scotland Yard, then he or she deserves their freedom. Charming.
I am a little puzzled as to why Polly, who is writes for the newspaper (she covers “Royalty and Dress” — how exciting) doesn’t go all Girl Reporter and share some of his thoughts as her own, but I suppose that would be gauche and not very Edwardian.
Each story is broken into smaller chapters, so it makes for a lot of bite-sized reading. They mostly deal with money issues with the odd relationship issue tossed in. “Money is in nine cases out of ten the keynote to a crime,” claims the old man.
They vary in intricacy. The first one, The Fenchurch Street Mystery, is ridiculously easy to solve. Actually, for most of them, I found myself at least heading in the right direction for the solution. But, Orczy’s writing style and her two main characters more than made up for any shortcomings in the mystery element.
Polly is very fresh and pointed. She is outgoing, has a career, is dating a (presumably) nice man named Richard Frobrisher (of The London Mail), and enjoys dining on her own at cafes using the money she’s earned as a reporter. I’d say she is very much a post-Victorianist.
The Old Man, well, he’s not as fetching as Polly, obviously. But, through him, Baroness Orczy gets to employ quite a lot of dry and dark humour. His constant fidgeting with his string is a little bit creepy. He is so obsessed with it. One day, Polly decided to give him a little treat:
Could anything be more ludicrous than the self-satisfaction, the abnormal conceit of this remark, made by that shrivelled piece of mankind, in a nervous, hesitating tone of voice? Polly made no comment, but drew from her pocket a beautiful piece of string, and knowing his custom of knotting such an article while unravelling his mysteries, she handed it across the table to him. She positively thought that he blushed.
Weird, huh? The whole string fixation of his is very much a running theme throughout.
Before reading the compilation, I was already familiar with one of its stories, The Mysterious Death on the Underground Railway, which was in an audio compilation of Classic Railway Murders, narrated beautifully by Patrick Malahide. You can read more about that here. When I got to that story, I decided to re-listen to Patrick Malahide’s narration instead. He dos a wonderful job of bringing the Old Man and Polly Burton to life.
Since it is such a light and easy read, and fairly short also, I do recommend the Old Man in the Corner. If you are looking for complex mysteries or character studies, it might prove unsatisfactory. But, if you would like to get the feel of some light Edwardian fiction with a couple of interesting and charming (or not-so-charming, as the case may be) characters, then it should do the trick.