Prior to hearing about The Big Bow Mystery, I had never heard of Israel Zangwill, author of this mystery novel. What I’ve discovered since then is that Zangwill (who was born in London) was a prolific author of books, plays, essays, and poems. The Big Bow Mystery was one of his earliest works, published in 1892, known as one of the first “locked room” mysteries. But Zangwill’s influence on history goes far beyond this book, which – by the end of this post – you’ll be able to share with anyone who asks YOU “Who was Israel Zangwill?”
Champion of the Oppressed
Both of Zangwill’s parents were immigrants from the Russian Empire. His father came from what is now Latvia, his mother from what is now Poland. Just as Charles Dickens did several decades earlier, Zangwill became a voice for those suffering oppression, writing books that featured characters who brought to life the issues of the time. In fact, after the publication of Children of the Ghetto: A Study of a Peculiar People in 1892, Zangwill was nicknamed “the Dickens of the Ghetto.”
Seventeen years later, in October 1909, The Melting Pot – a play written by Zangwill – opened in Washington, D.C. Former President Theodore Roosevelt was in the audience and shouted his praise to the author from the audience. Three years later, Zangwill received a letter from Roosevelt saying: “That particular play I shall always count among the very strong and real influences upon my thought and my life.” High praise from another very influential man. (America’s reputation as a “melting pot” originated with this play.)
The main character in The Melting Pot was a man whose family had been killed during Russia’s Kishinev pogrom (massacre) in 1903. The story was fiction, but the event that sparked the idea for the story was all too real. Threats like this affected Jewish people around the world, causing Zangwill and an associate of his – Theodor Herzl (a Zionist) – to advocate for establishment of a geographical area that Jewish people could call “home.”
Supporter of Zionism, Territorialism, and Feminism
Although Zangwill did support Zionism (pushing for Israel to become the permanent home for Jewish people), he later decided that territorialism made more sense – seeking a Jewish homeland in whatever country was willing to accommodate them.
Another movement Zangwill supported was feminism. In fact, his wife, Edith Ayrton, was a British author who was also an activist for women’s suffrage. In 1912, nine years after she married Zangwill, Edith helped form the Jewish League for Woman Suffrage – a group comprised of both men and women.
So Who WAS Israel Zangwill?
Obviously, Israel Zangwill was a man known for more than his literary works. He was an influential politician and social reformer through books, plays, and satire. His love of satire was even evident in The Big Bow Mystery. Apparently, reviewers criticized Zangwill’s use of satire in the book, upset that the author had inserted comedy into a story involving murder.
But to this day, The Big Bow Mystery is looked at as a great example of a “full-length locked room mystery” – a story in which all the clues are there, but not obvious. And although early critics didn’t care for the satire, the book’s humor seems to be one of the reasons readers are still enjoying the story today.
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