Let us know your thoughts about The Big Bow Mystery using the form above. We’ve also shared our own questions and observations below!
Locked Room Mysteries. The Big Bow Mystery is generally seen as the first locked room mystery novel. In a locked room mystery, a crime is committed in a room locked from the inside. How could any murderer have committed the crime and then escaped? It seems impossible. Writers have developed many ingenious solutions to locked room murders, but Israel Zangwill took the locked room device to a new level.
Dickensian Influence. The novel’s style is reminiscent of Dickens, including the use of funny character names, such as Edward Wimp and Mrs. Drabdump. The book also highlights the lot of the working man and the fight for workers’ rights. Like Bleak House, the book even begins with a description of a dense morning fog …
Humor. Zangwill has a dry wit. In the intro, he called the book’s humor too abundant and that “Mysteries should be sedate and sober. There should be a pervasive atmosphere of horror and awe such as Poe manages to create.” Do you agree?
Comparisons with Fergus Hume’s Mystery of a Hansom Cab (1886). Big Bow opens with an inquest, followed by press frenzy, public speculation, and proposed solutions in letters to the editor. Jessie Dymond may save Tom from the gallows if she can be found in time (much as Sal Rawlins saves Brian Fitzgerald in Hansom Cab).
All the Theories. The book was serialized in The Star, a popular paper known for sensationalizing Jack the Ripper’s Whitechapel murders (1888-91). The burning question in Big Bow: how did the murderer commit the crime? Various theories are suggested in the book, including:
- Small monkey with a razor came down the chimney
- Removal and replacement of a windowpane cut with a diamond
- Door panel sliced and replaced
- Powerful magnets used to turn the key and push the bolt
- Secret passages and trapdoors
- Arthur Constant swallowed the razor he used to cut his own throat
- The murderer hid and escaped when the door was broken down
- The murderer got in when Grodman and Mrs. Drabdump entered
- Wimp’s theory: the broken bolt and a loose key (or key on the floor)
Rival Detectives. Two rival detectives try to solve the case. Here, we have retired policeman George Grodman and Inspector Edward Wimp of Scotland Yard. When Wimp shows up at a liberal rally to arrest Tom Mortlake, the narrator says, “Wimp had won; Grodman felt like a whipped cur.”
Several books we’ve read (The Mystery of a Hansom Cab and A Study in Scarlet) have focused on the rivalry between detectives. Did this trope develop during this time period? Is it still common in detective novels? Who are your rivals?
Red Herrings. Zangwill offers up several possible solutions and suspects. Did Denzil Cantercot commit the murder, as Grodman seems to suspect? Or did Tom Mortlake do it? Did these red herrings fool you?
Fair Play. In the preface, Zangwill introduces the idea of fair play: “The indispensable condition of a good mystery is that it should be able and unable to be solved by the reader, and that the writer’s solution should satisfy.” Fair play is a key tenet of Golden Age detective fiction (1920-39). How would you compare Poe’s solution in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841) with Zangwill’s?
Foul Play. Readers have access to the same clues as the characters. Mrs. Drabdump entered Constant’s room with “her hands before her as if to ward off the dreadful vision.” After Grodman bust open the door, he spread a handkerchief over Constant’s face. It’s a sort of conjuring trick. However, readers face a hurdle that the characters don’t: misdirection. What do you think about the narrator keeping secrets?
The Eye Sees What It Expects to See. Grodman says people go through life without eyes, and their observation and judgment are impaired by irrelevant prejudices. He knew Mrs. Drabdump, like most women, would cry murder: “She habitually takes her prepossessions for facts, her inferences for observations. … The key to the Big Bow Mystery is feminine psychology.” So much to unpack here …
Means (Capability), Motive (Desire), and Opportunity. Tom Mortlake goes to trial, where his guilt was “as clear as circumstantial evidence could make it.” At the end, he’s rescued from the gallows, and we learn the least likely suspect committed the crime. The killer tells the Home Secretary, “There came on me the desire to commit a crime that should baffle detection.” Were you thrown by the killer’s motive?