The Big Bow Mystery by Israel Zangwill (1892)

Mrs Drabdump, the landlady of 11 Grover Street, received no reply to repeated attempts to wake her lodger Arthur Constant. Sensing that something is not right, she calls upon her neighbor, the retired detective Mr. George Grodman for help. Grodman finds the door locked and bolted from the inside. When he breaks the door down the body of Constant is revealed with his throat cut. It’s obvious Constant didn’t kill himself, but impossible that the killer could have escaped unseen.

This is not the first locked room mystery ever published, that honor goes to Edgar Allen Poe’s short story, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, written in 1841), The Big Bow Mystery is regarded as the first full length locked room novel. 

Given that this was a Victorian novel, I expected the story to be dated, the narrative stilted, and melodrama more than mystery. I soon found this not to be the case and was more than pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed this read. The story combines an intriguing mystery with some very pointed social commentary in which Zangwill skewers religion, trade unions, the labor movement, Scotland Yard, and so much more. The narrative is filled with humor and sardonic wit, and a delightfully Dickensian group of characters.

Mrs Drabdump, of 11 Glover Street, Bow, was one of the few persons in London whom fog did not depress. She went about her work quite as cheerlessly as usual.”

While there are no less than two well-known detectives involved in the case (who each have opposing views as to the culprit), there is very little actual detection done in the course of the story. All theories and discoveries are actually amusing attempts at one-ups-man-ship between rivals. Some readers may be put off by this, but it should be remembered that at this time the mystery novel is still in its infancy, and the detection methods used by the likes of Thorndyke and French have yet to be developed. Still, Zangwill manages very well to work around what is lacking in methods, and lays out all of the clues necessary to identify the murderer, along with some very good red herrings. The solution is subtle—and the culprit surprising.

Israel Zangwell is better known as a writer of social commentaries such as The Melting Pot, and The Big Bow Mystery is his only work of detective fiction. Still, he created not only a very entertaining read, but an extremely good mystery. I would urge anyone who enjoys the genre to read this.

My Judgment – After over a year of writing reviews, I’ve concluded that my numerical ratings aren’t truly representative of my thoughts regarding a book. So, I’ve made the decision to do away with them. Hopefully my words will be enough to convey my opinions.

Prior Rulings – José @ A Crime is Afoot, Rich @ Past Offences, John Harrison @ Countdown John’s Christie Journal

Vintage Mystery Extravaganza—2014 Bingo—Read one locked room mystery

14 thoughts on “The Big Bow Mystery by Israel Zangwill (1892)

  1. This will always be one of my favorites. The building anticipation between the presentation and the solution is spot on; a lot of modern mysteries could learn from it. I’m also impressed by the sudden malevolence of the killer. A bare-bones description of the character’s action wouldn’t sound all that great, but, within the confines of the narrative, it works.

  2. I keep hoping someone is going to publish a decent physical edition of this and do it justice, but like so many of the innovating early works of detective fiction being out of copyright simply means that we get endless cheaply-produced editions — or worse, free ebooks — which have about as much effort put into them as this simile.

    It’s a wonderful story, with, as you say, a surprisingly lively wit and muscularity about the prose, and the multiple-solution closing is fabulous. As James says, so many authors could still learn a lot from this — it’s not timeless, but it is brilliant. Could we persuade the BL to put out a definitive edition in their Crime Classics ranger, perhaps?

      1. I understand that edition to also include Poe’s ‘The Murders in the Rub Morgue, though, which might make sense from a page-count perspective, but I’d prefer this to stand alone.

    1. I had to read it as an ebook from my local library’s digital collection. As usual for an ebook these days, it was riddled with errors. Like you I would love a nice pb edition. Is it time for a BL petition!!??

      1. Now that I think about it, I probably would be too (especially after what I said about the solution to The Frightened Stiff). We’re so used to “fair play” now that having a culprit come out of nowhere does leave you feeling somewhat cheated. But at the time I was reading it I was so astonished by that I didn’t really care that it was a cheat 🤔.

  3. Laurie – glad you like this one. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it as well. It was one of the early GAD novels I found after (naively) discovering that there was a world of GAD fiction beyond Conan Doyle and Christie, whose books I loved as teenager.

    Sorry to see your numeric ratings stop as I like leveraging those as a guide of what books to add to my TBR pile.

    1. I’d been rethinking my rating system for a while. I was beginning to write to justify the rating instead of just writing about what I enjoyed. Hopefully It doesn’t disturb your TBR too much 😉.

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