What do you think of when you hear the term “Victorian locked room mystery”? My first thought was of movies I’d seen where a group of people had been invited to a dinner party in a mansion isolated from the outside world … and then – one by one – they start dying off (not from natural causes).
Turns out this is just one type of locked room mystery. The type that’s described in this post occurs when a murder victim is discovered inside of a room that’s been locked from the inside … with no apparent possible means of entry by a murderer.
The first locked room mysteries appeared more than a century ago, first in a short story written by Edgar Allan Poe in 1841 (The Murders in the Rue Morgue), and then 51 years later (1892) in a novel by Israel Zangwill – The Big Bow Mystery.
First Full-Length Victorian Locked Room Mystery
Despite the fact that Zangwill’s book was not the first locked room mystery of the Victorian era, it eventually became known as the first NOVEL featuring the locked-room method of murder.
Zangwill’s story first appeared in serial form in The Star – an evening newspaper in London that was already famous for having published letters signed by Jack the Ripper, sensationalizing the 1888-91 Whitechapel murders he committed. In the decades following the appearance of The Big Bow Mystery, other mystery writers used the “locked room” theme in their own stories, but Zangwill definitely deserves credit as the author who perfected the locked-room method to the point where he could create a full-fledged novel with it.
Several theories about what really happened in the locked room where Arthur Constant was found murdered are presented in the book. Known as a “union agitator” who campaigned for the rights of working-class people, Constant did not appear to have committed suicide. But since there didn’t seem to be any possible way he could have been murdered while inside a room that was (apparently) locked from the inside, the detectives investigating the case were baffled.
Some of the proposed theories included:
- A small monkey with a razor climbing down the chimney
- Powerful magnets being used to turn the key and push the bolt
- Secret passages and trapdoors
- A door panel being sliced and then replaced
- Removal and replacement of a window pane that was cut with a diamond
Detective Rivalry, Red Herrings … and Controversy
Readers soon discover that a rivalry exists between the detectives on this case – retired policeman George Grodman and Inspector Edward Wimp of Scotland Yard. Readers also find themselves being led down trails leading nowhere, since Zangwill suggests several possible solutions, bringing attention to details that aren’t really as important as one may think.
This bizarre mystery, involving a plot filled with unexpected twists and turns, was one that many critics in the late 19th century found fault with. The wit and sarcasm Zangwill used in the story seemed inappropriate, they thought, considering the fact that the subject was about a gruesome murder. (Modern readers don’t seem to be put off by the humor in the same way many Victorian readers were.)
Learn More About the Victorian Locked Room Mystery
The Big Bow Mystery is the latest installment on Tea, Tonic & Toxin’s website. Visit this page on the site to learn more interesting facts about this fascinating Victorian locked room mystery. And don’t forget to subscribe to the podcast on your preferred platform!