Baroness Orczy (1865 – 1947)

OIP (2)Baroness Emma (“Emmuska”) Orczy (September 23, 1865 – November 12, 1947) was a British novelist, playwright and artist of Hungarian origin. She was most notable for her series of novels featuring the Scarlet Pimpernel. Some of her paintings were exhibited at the Royal Academy in London. Born Emma Magdalena Rosalia Maria Josefa Barbara Orczy in Tarnaörs, Hungary, she was the daughter of composer Baron Felix Orczy and his wife, Countess Emma Wass. Family friends at their Hungarian estates included Gounod, Liszt, and Wagner. Her parents left Hungary in 1868, fearful of the threat of a peasant revolution. They lived in Budapest, Brussels, and Paris, where Emma studied music without success. Finally, in 1880, the family moved to London where they lodged with their countryman Francis Pichler at 162 Great Portland Street. Orczy attended West London School of Art and then Heatherley’s School of Fine Art, where she met her future husband, Montague Maclean Barstow, whom she married in 1894. (Source: Wikipedia)

Orczy was an early pioneer of the detective story, with no fewer than three series characters: The Old Man in the Corner, an armchair detective who unravels mysteries, along with knotted pieces of string, in the Lyons corner tea-shop for a young woman journalist, and who reappears in Unravelled Knots; Skin O’ My Tooth, the nickname given to an elderly and unconventional lawyer, and Lady Molly of Scotland Yard. Many of Orczy’s books are now available through Project Gutenberg and Gutenberg Australia.

She became a founder member of the Detection Club, established in 1930, although by that time her main claim to literary fame lay in her stories about Sir Percy Blakeney, alias the Scarlet Pimpernel. (Source: Martin Edwards)

Detective Bibliography: The Case of Miss Elliott (1905); The Old Man in the Corner (1909) aka The Man in the Corner; Lady Molly of Scotland Yard (1910); The Man in Grey (1918); Castles in the Air (1921); Unravelled Knots (1925); The Miser of Maida Vale (1925); and Skin O’ My Tooth (1928).

The Old Man in the Corner is an unnamed armchair detective who appears in a series of short stories written by Baroness Orczy. He examines and solves crimes while sitting in the corner of a genteel London tea-room in conversation with a female journalist. He was one of the first of this character-type created in the wake of the huge popularity of the Sherlock Holmes stories. The character’s moniker is used as the title of the collection of the earliest stories featuring the character.

The character first appeared in The Royal Magazine in 1901 in a series of six “Mysteries of London”. The following year he returned in seven “Mysteries of Great Cities” set in large provincial centers of the British Isles. The stories are told by an unnamed lady journalist who reports the conversation of the ‘man in the corner’ who sits at the same table in the A.B.C. teashop. For the book, twelve were rewritten in the third person, with the lady journalist now named Polly Burton. The title, The Old Man in the Corner (U.S. edition: The Man in the Corner) was given to one of the book collections of the earliest stories. Although it contains the earliest written stories in the series, they were not collected in book form until four years after the chronologically later stories in The Case of Miss Elliott (1905). The last book in the series is the much later Unravelled Knots (1925).

The Old Man relies mostly upon sensationalistic newspaper accounts, with the occasional courtroom visit, and relates all this while tying complicated knots in a piece of string. The plots themselves are typical of Edwardian crime fiction, resting on a foundation of unhappy marriages and the inequitable division of family property. Other period details include a murder in the London Underground, the murder of a female doctor, and two cases involving artists living in “bohemian” lodgings. Another new and noteworthy feature is that no one is ever brought to justice. Though the villains are identified by the narrator (who disdains to inform the police), most cannot be proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

(Source: Wikipedia)

2476(Source: Facsimile Dust Jacket, Dodd, Mead & Company (USA), 1909)

Mysteries! There is no such thing as a mystery in connection with any crime, provided intelligence is brought to bear upon its investigation.

So says a rather down-at-heel elderly gentleman to young Polly Burton of the Evening Observer, in the corner of the ABC teashop on Norfolk Street one afternoon. Once she has forgiven him for distracting her from her newspaper and luncheon, Miss Burton discovers that her interlocutor is as brilliantly gifted as he is eccentric – able to solve mysteries that have made headlines and baffled the finest minds of the police without once leaving his seat in the teahouse. As the weeks go by, she listens to him unravelling the trickiest of puzzles and solving the most notorious of crimes, but still one final mystery remains: the mystery of the old man in the corner himself.

The Old Man in the Corner is a classic collection of mysteries featuring the Teahouse Detective – a contemporary of Sherlock Holmes, with a brilliant mind and waspish temperament to match that of Conan Doyle’s creation. (Source: Pushkin Press)

John Grant’s review The Old Man in the Corner at Goodreads here.

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