Unravelled Knots: The Teahouse Detective – Baroness Orczy

*I received a free ARC of this novel, with thanks to Pushkin Press and NetGalley.  The decision to review and my opinions are my own.*

Blurb: Another classic collection of mysteries from the Golden Age of British crime writing, by the author of The Scarlet Pimpernel

It has been twenty years since Polly Burton last saw the Teahouse Detective, but one foggy afternoon she stumbles into a Fleet Street café and chances upon the cantankerous sleuth again. The years have not softened his manner, nor dulled his appetite for unravelling the most tortuous of conspiracies, shedding light on mysteries that have confounded the finest minds of the police.

How did Prince Orsoff disappear from his railway carriage in-between stations? How could the Ingres masterpiece be seen in two places at once? And what is the truth behind the story of the blood-stained tunic that exonerated its owner?

From the comfort of his seat by the fire, the Teahouse Detective sets his brilliant mind to work once more.

This is my first acquaintance with Baroness Orczy’s Teahouse Detective, and I found it a bit of a mixed experience.

The format of these short stories is the same in each case: the first-person narrator, a journalist, comes across her old acquaintance, ‘The Old Man in the Corner’ at a café, where he plays incessantly with a piece of knotted string and casually solves big murder cases, apparently using only information gleaned from newspaper reports and similar.

There is quite a bit of the casual racism and classism you might expect for the time period in which these stories were written – lots of “those sorts of people” commentary and stereotypes. This is likely to be offensive to many in this day and age, however, I don’t feel it fair to try to hold older books to modern standards of morality.

The armchair detective himself is described in unappealing terms – physically and in his boastful, gloating mannerisms. His method of solving cases also lacked some of the excitement of other similar detective stories (such as the cases of Sherlock Holmes), as he merely recites the facts of the case that are known to him from popular accounts (and some which I couldn’t see how he could possibly have known just from the papers!), then provides his inquisitive chronicler with the solution to the mystery. By just telling the story from his chair, with none of the customary interviewing of suspects or assessing of clues, makes the stories feel rather passive for the reader.

On the other hand, if you treat the narrator and the detective as simply a framing device, not necessary to the story itself, then this is a really fun collection of short Agatha Christie / Conan Doyle style murder puzzles. For each story we get the scene set, then are presented with a murder or robbery victim and 3-5 suspects from which to choose. We can then try to spot the significant clues amongst the many red herrings to try to beat the reveal as to how-, why- and who-dunnit.

I quite enjoyed this foray into classic detective fiction, and whilst The Old Man in the Corner is never going to replace Poirot or Holmes in my heart, this collection certainly holds some knotty little puzzles for your little grey cells!

“You were thinking of the disappearance of the Australian millionaire?” he asked blandly.
“I don’t know that I was,” I retorted.
“But of course you were. How could any journalist worthy of the name fail to be interested in that intricate case?”
“I suppose you have your theory—as usual?”
“It is not a theory,” the creature replied, with that fatuous smile of his which always irritated me; “it is a Certainty.”
Then, as he became silent, absorbed in the contemplation of a wonderfully complicated knot in his beloved bit of string, I said with gracious condescension:
“You may talk about it, if you like.”
He did like, fortunately for me, because, frankly, I could not see daylight in that maze of intrigue, adventure and possibly crime, which was described by the Press as “The Mystery of the White Carnation.”

– Baroness Orczy, Unravelled Knots: The Teahouse Detective

Baroness Orczy (1865–1947) was a Hungarian-born British author, best known for her Scarlet Pimpernel novels. Her Teahouse Detective, who features in Unravelled Knots, was one of the first fictional sleuths created in response to the Sherlock Holmes stories’ huge success. Initially serialised in magazines, the stories in this collection were first published in book form in 1908 and have since been adapted for radio, television and film. Two other collections of Teahouse Detective mysteries are available from Pushkin Vertigo.

Unravelled Knots: The Teahouse Detective is available on Amazon right now.

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