Tuesday, April 9, 2019

The Tea House Detective - Baroness Orczy

The Tea House Detective: The Old Man in the Corner, is a book I've wanted to read for a while. Mostly because I'm generally interested in Baroness Orczy (due to a childhood obsession with The Scarlet Pimpernel), but also because she's one of the relatively early people writing in the detective fiction genre.

The Old Man in the Corner is probably the earliest arm chair detective (it's what the Ellery Queen quote on the cover says), and Orczy's foray into detective fiction must have been inspired by the success of Sherlock Holmes - the old man being something of a Holmes like character with Polly Burton, journalist, filling the Watson role.

The old man (we don't learn his name) parks himself at Polly's favourite table in her regular lunch time cafe and without much encouragement starts to explain to her just how hopeless the police are by giving her solutions for various notorious unsolved crimes. He is clearly one of the world's great mansplainers.

Polly seems to be as fascinated as she is irritated (it's never clear if she uses any of his insights in her journalistic career) but over time something of a friendship obviously builds up between the pair. This is really a collection of short stories with a particular thread running through them that makes sense in the final episode (where Polly finally gets the last word) so it's no surprise to read that they originally appeared in serial form before being collected into a book in 1908.

As short stories they're fun, the who done it element is more or less obvious from the beginning of each story (only one tripped me up) but they're pleasing enough mysteries for all that. Maybe more so because the culprits and clues are so easy to spot.

More interesting is how ambiguous the old mans morals are. He feels no need to take his insights to the police, and no duty to see justice meted out upon the guilty. He simply wants to demonstrate to somebody how clever he is. Polly seems to accept this, maybe because she doesn't always believe his explanations, but her own conclusion and reaction to the final crime is curious. It's not entirely clear where her sympathies lie at all and it's that little bit of ambiguity that in the end makes this book memorable.


  1. I've read several of these in anthologies - good to see them reprinted! I was interested in Polly as a bright young working woman, and how matter-of-fact that depiction is.

  2. That's what fascinates me about books like this - it's all the details that go to build a different picture to the one that we've inherited about what women's lives were really like. Just the number of women earning a living from writing (both in reality, and their fiction) is a revelation.