The Old Man in the Corner - The Teahouse Detective by Baroness Orczy (1908) - As an infrequent reader of classic crime fiction I was unfamiliar with the Old Man in the Corner, the original armchair detective. A long time ago I read The Scarlet Pimpernel by the Baroness. I can only remember an outline of the plot. I do recall enjoying the book.
I found The Tea House Detective at the Mosaic Bookstore in Kelowna just after Christmas. I put it back on my first trip to the store but could not leave it on my second visit to the store.
Miss Polly Burton, a journalist with the Evening Observer, has her own corner table at the Norfolk Street branch of the Aerated Bread Company’s depôts in London. She becomes fascinated by the man in the corner “so pale, so thin, with such funny light-coloured hair, brushed very smoothly across the top of a very obviously bald crown. He looked so timid and nervous as he fidgeted incessantly with a piece of string; his long, lean, and trembling fingers tying and untying it into knots of wonderful and complicated proportions”.
There are a series of short stories in which the man in the corner solves unsolved crimes by the application of his mind. What is unusual is that while the crimes are solved by his inductive powers there is no attempt to arrest and convict the criminal. Modern crime fiction rarley allows the guilty to go free. He says:
As often as not my sympathies go to the criminal who is clever and astute enought to lead our entire police force by the nose.
The stories focus on human nature. The Liverpool Mystery is about a theft involving jewels and bank notes. It opens:
“A title - a foreign title, I mean - is always very useful for purposes of swindles and frauds,” remarked the man in the corner to Polly one day. “The cleverest robberies of modern times were perpetrated by a man who dubbed himself Lord Seymour; whilst over here the same class of thief calls himself Count Something ending in ‘l’, or Prince the other, ending in ‘off’”.
A young clerk taking jewels worth thousands of pounds to a Russian prince is advised to be wary of the purported royalty and be provided payment before giving possession of any jewels purchased. Unfortunately, the clerk was not as wary of a man in a “magnificient fur coat” identifying himself as a member of the Czarist police who convinces the clerk the notes were fakes. Upon being given the notes the officer undertakes to convince the prince to return the jewels in exchange for avoiding prosecution by British authorities. With but little variation the same scam is fleecing vulnerable people around the world over a century later. As to the thief, the man in the corner logically identifies him.
The story also illustrates the use in the book of makeup and clothing for disguise and distraction. While clever, credibility is stretched at times that the criminal would not have been recognized
Following the money was as solid an investigating strategy early in the 20th Century as it is 20 years into the 21st Century.
There is not an impossible locked room in the book.
There is only the odd twinge of discomfort over the prejudices of the time. The Baroness was an excellent storyteller.
The very deft ending caught me totally by surprise. It was a striking and appropriate conclusion to a collection of good stories.