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Tuesday
Mar302010

Zangwill's Bow

Outwardly I was calm, and spoke to the people about me as usual.  Inwardly I was on fire with a consuming scientific passion.

It is probably advisable not to reveal which character in this book, the first full−length locked room mystery novel of the kind subsequently made famous by this writer, is responsible for the above quote.  Unlike the masterworks of Carr, Zangwill has little interest in the actual logistics of the crime.  There is no Gideon Fell or Sir Henry Merrivale or any other cozy and flawless figure to work out the kinks of some of the most ingenious mysteries ever devised (unfortunately, as can be expected, Carr’s page−turners suffer greatly from a lack of character development; I say this having last read them almost twenty years ago).  Instead, we have a slew of Dickensian caricatures: Mortlake, Wimp, Drabdump, Grodman, Constant, Crowl, Dymond, Spigot, Crogie, and the underappreciated poet and ghost writer Denzil Cantercot whose “epic poem” is “morbid from start to finish … [with] ‘death’ in the third line.”  They bandy about the trendy issues of the day — religion, money, and social reform — in broad confirmation of William James’s adage on what some people call thinking.  But before all that, there is the matter of the crime.

The victim is Arthur Constant, a lovable young fellow known both as an altruist and a citizen of upright moral principles.  One morning at seven o’clock, he is found with his throat freshly cut in his bed by his landlady Mrs. Drabdump and the retired detective Grodman.  All accesses to his modest boarding house accommodations are locked from the inside (his room’s old door gave way to such a scene).  By all indications, he had no reasons to end his life and even fewer that would provoke a murder, as he was

A man who had never made an enemy even by benefiting him, nor lost a friend even by refusing his favors … a man whose heart overflowed with peace and goodwill to all men all the year round … a man to whom Christmas came not once, but three hundred and sixty−five times a year … a brilliant intellect, who gave up to mankind what was meant for himself, and worked as a laborer in the vineyard of humanity, never crying that the grapes were sour … a man uniformly cheerful and of good courage, living in that forgetfulness of self which is the truest antidote to despair.

It may be surmised that the only possible motive is deception; in other words, that someone so unabashedly interested in the Brotherhood of Man might have concealed a dark inner life.  Unsurprisingly, a woman surfaces that links Constant to another young man, and a tenuous thread is drawn through the otherwise unconnected events.  An arrest is made, followed by a glorious trial (an echo of an equally entertaining inquest earlier in the book) and a quick juridical decision.  As is so often the case in murder mysteries, that decision is reached only four−fifths through our novel, which leaves just enough time for a couple of characters to probe the matter more deeply.

What is remarkable about Zangwill’s novel is how unremarkably its scenes unfold.  In a Victorian London less sultry and more talkative than the one popularized by the residents of Baker Street, the crime initially garners great attention:

The mystery was the one topic of conversation everywhere — it was on the carpet and the bare boards alike, in the kitchen and the drawing room.  It was discussed with science or stupidity, with aspirates or without.  It came up for breakfast with the rolls and was swept off the dinner table with the last crumbs.

In time, however, it becomes yet another incident that, upon mention of the deceased or consideration of his deeds, makes people more thoughtful but not stop going about their business.  Everyone misses Arthur Constant but there will be other Arthur Constants.  Given the novel’s inexplicably silly name, a reflection of the age’s yellow press sensationalism, the whole business might sound hollow to our modern sensibilities.  So when one character claims that “the key to the Big Bow Mystery is feminine psychology,” we wonder to what extent that has changed in the last hundred years.  Maybe not as much as you might think.

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