Friday, August 08, 2008

The Book You Have to Read:
“The Big Bow Mystery,” by Israel Zangwill

(Editor’s note: This is the 17th installment of our ongoing Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. Today’s selection comes from Will Thomas, the Oklahoma-based author of five novels set in Victorian London, all of which feature enquiry agent Cyrus Barker and his assistant, Thomas Llewelyn. The latest entry in Thomas’ series is The Black Hand, released last month by Simon & Schuster.)

Before creating the character Cyrus Barker for my own mystery series, I researched not only Scotland Yard and Sherlock Holmes, but also the so-called rivals of Holmes, as well as mystery stories and novels created in the wake of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s popularity. Characters such as Martin Hewitt and the Thinking Machine, and authors such as R. Austin Freeman and Arthur B. Reeve have nearly been forgotten now, but it is interesting to read contemporary authors’ interpretations on the Great Detective. Some, like Sexton Blake, are mere clones, deserving oblivion; but others are fresh and original, such as Bill Owen, the armchair sleuth in Baroness Orczy’s The Old Man in the Corner (1909). One author stood out to me, however, and has since appeared as a character in some of my novels. He is Israel Zangwill, author of my favorite forgotten mystery classic, The Big Bow Mystery (1891).

One has to be a Jewish scholar to discuss Zangwill these days. Born in the soon-to-be-notorious Whitechapel district of London, he was known as the “Jewish Dickens” because of his humorous books on Anglo-Jewry, such as Children of the Ghetto (1892). Beginning as a teacher at London’s Jewish Free School, he eventually became a reporter, then a novelist, and eventually a Zionist leader in the days before Theodor Herzl. He almost brokered a deal to create a Jewish state in Galveston, Texas. Ultimately, he is best known as the man who coined the phrase, “melting pot,” the title of one of his plays, and for writing The Big Bow Mystery.

This novel begins on a frigid December morning with London in the grips of King Fog. We are introduced to Mrs. Drabdump, a landlady in the city’s Bow section. Her absurd name is one reason for the comparison to Dickens, but the other is the attention to detail in everyday life in the East End. The landlady is unable to awaken her lodger and crosses the street to speak with retired Scotland Yard Inspector Grodman. What ensues is one of the earliest locked-room mysteries, inspiring future crime writers such as Agatha Christie and John Dickson Carr.

Zangwill writes with a light touch, often bordering on satire, reminiscent of his contemporary, Sholem Aleichem. His approach is masterful, however, and no more so than in The Big Bow Mystery. It was serialized weekly in London’s evening Star newspaper from August to September 1891, captivating members of the public enough that they sent letters to the publisher. As each guess at the murderer’s identity arrived, Zangwill crossed that name off his private list of characters, until he was left with only one suspect, whom he then proved in the last installment was the killer. In essence, this means he began publication of a mystery he had not completed, and hadn’t even worked out in his head. That, in Yiddish terms, is chutzpah. How did he keep from writing himself into a corner, or from finding himself unable to finish? I applaud his skill, if not his outright gall.

I made Zangwill a character in my first novel, Some Danger Involved (2005), and ultimately, he becomes the best friend of my young protagonist, Thomas Llewelyn. Through him, Llewelyn is indoctrinated into life in the East End, on the border of the Underworld. Most readers have assumed Zangwill is a character I invented, but I covet responses from scholars and others who remember that long-ago author.

The unwritten conceit within my novels is that Llewelyn wrote them sometime after the turn of the last century when interest in detective work was at its highest. The young Zangwill displays a mixture of fear and fascination with private sleuth Cyrus Barker, once comparing him to a golem. I’d like to believe he was thinking of Barker years later when he created Inspector Grodman.

In my novel The Hellfire Conspiracy (2007), I have Zangwill involved in a thorny relationship with poet and author Amy Levy, who wrote one of the only other Victorian novels on Jewish life, Reuben Sachs (1888). The two didn’t have a relationship in real life, but both were part of the small circle of Jewish intellectuals at the time and must have known one another. This is a bit of gall of my own, especially as Levy’s sexuality is open to interpretation; but having also written that she was best friends with Fabian Society member Beatrice Potter, my research has since been proven to be true.

Zangwill was prolific, writing plays, pamphlets, short stories, novels, and essays. Most of those have fallen by the wayside, a footnote in literary history and Anglo-Jewish studies. The Big Bow Mystery does not deserve such oblivion. It wraps us in fog and sets us down in the mean streets of Jack the Ripper’s London, complete with a freshly cut throat. It offers humor and pathos, a whiff of Dickens, and a skillful locked-room mystery. If you haven’t read it yet, in my opinion, there is a serious hole in your mystery education! The only way to fill the void is to sleuth out this old classic and read it.

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Next Friday, Seattle-area novelist Anthony Flacco will be weighing in here with his own selection of a “forgotten book.” He’s the author of a pair of historical mysteries set in San Francisco, the newest of which is The Hidden Man.

FOLLOW-UP: Mary Read, historical novelist and the compiler of the wonderful Maywrite Library of free classic mystery fiction on the Web, alerts us to the fact that The Big Bow Mystery is available--in its entirety and at no cost--for anybody who’s willing to read it on a computer screen. Just click here.

READ MORE:A Tongue-in-Cheek Assessment of The Big Bow Mystery by the Author Himself,” by Mike Gray (Ontos).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Cool. I published that particular version of the Big Bow Mystery. Thanks for the plug.