Tuesday, 11 June 2019

The Old Man in the Corner by Baroness Emmuska Orczy

The Old Man in the Corner: The Teahouse Detective Volume 1 by Baroness Emmuska Orczy
First published in the UK by Hodder And Stoughton in 1908. Republished by Pushkin Vertigo in November 2018.

Featured in Cover Characteristics: Windows, one of my Classics Club Challenge reads and one of my 2019 COYER Summer Challenge reads

How I got this book:
Received a review copy from the publisher via NetGalley

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Mysteries! There is no such thing as a mystery in connection with any crime, provided intelligence is brought to bear upon its investigation.

So says a rather down-at-heel elderly gentleman to young Polly Burton of the Evening Observer, in the corner of the ABC teashop on Norfolk Street one afternoon. Once she has forgiven him for distracting her from her newspaper and luncheon, Miss Burton discovers that her interlocutor is as brilliantly gifted as he is eccentric - able to solve mysteries that have made headlines and baffled the finest minds of the police without once leaving his seat in the teahouse. As the weeks go by, she listens to him unravelling the trickiest of puzzles and solving the most notorious of crimes, but still one final mystery remains: the mystery of the old man in the corner himself.

The Old Man in the Corner is a classic collection of mysteries, featuring the Teahouse Detective - a contemporary of Sherlock Holmes, with a brilliant mind and waspish temperament to match that of Conan Doyle's creation.

This first volume of Orczy's Teahouse Detective series, The Old Man In The Corner, is a difficult book for me to review. On the one hand, I enjoyed the intricate setups of each previously unsolvable mystery and the eponymous Old Man has an engaging way of telling his stories. Each short story is linked by the literary device of an amateur sleuth mansplaining his interpretation of an unsolved crime while he and his audience relax over a teashop luncheon. The crimes display a wonderful understanding of English class snobbery and, with only very limited space for physical descriptions of people and place, manage to impart a pretty good idea of cities such as London and Birmingham at the time.

On the other hand, however, several aspects of this collection really haven't aged well meaning I was frequently irritated by instances of sexism and xenophobia. I understand that The Old Man In The Corner was written well over a century ago, but its author was a Hungarian-born woman. Perhaps the blithe dismissals of women and foreigners were meant to be satirising English society attitudes of the early 1900s? If that was the case though, then I would expect Orczy's recurring female character, Polly, to have been a more realistic creation. We are told she is a journalist - an independent and educated woman - yet from the moment the Old Man starts rhapsodising, Polly is nothing more than a practically silent sounding board for his ideas, and more often than not is referred to as a 'young girl'. I felt she needed to be a much stronger foil in order for her role to be viable. As it is, the Old Man might just as well have spoken directly to us readers.

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