The Big Bow Mystery by Israel Zangwill
Set in London’s working-class East End, The Big Bow Mystery by Israel Zangwill is one of the earliest examples of locked room mysteries. In the story, two detectives race to solve a murder, an innocent man is condemned, and only at the very end is the startling solution revealed.
Estimated Reading Time: 3 hours.
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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 …
Fair play. In the preface, Israel 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?
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?
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Israel Zangwill may not be a household name, but it should be. His 1892 novel, The Big Bow Mystery, is a locked-room mystery set in London’s working-class East End. Two detectives race to solve a murder, an innocent man is condemned, and the solution’s a shocker. (And it’s laugh-out-loud funny.)Listen →