The perfect mystery

An e-publication brings back to life Israel Zangwill’s intriguing and only foray into crime fiction.

Israel Zangwill (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Israel Zangwill
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
EXISTING AS they do out there in the ether, electronic books are rather mysterious. So perhaps it’s appropriate that HarperCollins has decided to produce Israel Zangwill’s 1891 crime novel, “The Big Bow Mystery,” or as it was later retitled, “The Perfect Crime,” solely in ectoplasmic format. The e-novel has just arrived under the publisher’s new Detective Club rubric, which references a set of titles originally marketed as the Detective Story Club by the British publisher W. Collins Sons & Co. in 1929.
Now the plot thickens. A certain online shopping site unaccountably named either for a South American waterway or for an oversized female warrior offers to cybership the HarperCollins version wirelessly to your Kindle reader at full price. However, it also provides the novel in another Kindle edition for 99 cents. (Don’t ask me to explain; maybe the cheaper version comes in a microscopic font.) But wait. For Luddites, the same seller also offers the book in several paperback editions at a whole range of prices. I got one some time ago for just a few bucks. It has no named publisher, copyright or other publication information, just an ISBN number on the back cover and a discreet note at the bottom of the final page that says the book was “Made in the USA, Middletown, DE, 28 August 2015.” Apparently this is a print-on-demand publication, and while I may have demanded it, there’s no clue as to who printed it.
I’ve long had a somewhat paradoxical relationship with murder mysteries. I rarely read them. I succumb maybe at most once a year, largely because (a) they invariably prove to contain nothing but empty calories, and (b) if I don’t remain vigilant I will become addicted to them.
This was borne home to me on that horrifying occasion when I was stuck on a desert mountaintop for 45 days of IDF reserve duty and I consumed all of the usual beach reading I’d schlepped along in my kitbag (Proust, Wittgenstein, Goncharov, Hegel, Gibbon, the Babylonian Talmud) with a week’s worth of defending the Jewish state still to go. In desperation, I borrowed an Agatha Christie from a comrade in arms. As I feared: preposterous plot, prosciutto-thin characters, utterly artless prose. I gagged and immediately borrowed another. As some wag once said, “It is better to have loved and lost – much better.”
Anyway, when I learned of the publication, or republication, or e-publication or whatever it was of a murder mystery, of all things, by the once renowned but now fairly obscure Israel Zangwill, I was very much intrigued.
Zangwill (1864-1926) was a prolific and protean Anglo-Jewish writer and lecturer.
“The Works of Israel Zangwill,” edited by Alfred A. Wolmark, fills 14 volumes.
Zangwill wrote nearly a score of novels, even more plays, hundreds of essays and articles, and nonfiction books on subjects ranging from Judaism to feminism. He edited a humor magazine and translated the Spanish Jewish poet and philosopher Ibn Gabirol. He wrote polemics about pogroms and debated the Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. His play “The Melting Pot” (1908) reportedly delighted President Theodore Roosevelt, who attended a performance in Washington, D.C.
Born in London’s grim East End immigrant quarter of Whitechapel, Zangwill attended the Jews’ Free School in Spitalfields and earned a degree at the University of London. By age 18 he was already making his living with his pen. He became an ardent Zionist and a point man in Britain for Herzl, then cooled on Zionism in favor of “Territorialism,” the notion of establishing a Jewish home wherever one may be possible, including Uganda.
Having married a gentile woman, with whom he had two children, Zangwill was also a proponent of Jewish survival via assimilation. (Again, don’t ask me to explain.) Today, if he is remembered, it is for the interrelated sketches in “Children of the Ghetto” (1892), “The King of Schnorrers” (1894) and “Dreamers of the Ghetto” (1898).
The first two of these were also the sources of successful Zangwill plays.
YET ONE year before his great triumph with “Children of the Ghetto” Zangwill created a sensation not only with a thriller, but with a locked-room murder mystery at that. The locked-room murder had already been offered in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841) by Edgar Allan Poe, but that was a short story; Zangwill, who gives a nod to Poe in his text, is credited with writing the first full-length novel about a murder committed in a sealed room.
And what a murder. Arthur Constant, a much-admired labor leader, does not respond to his landlady’s efforts to rouse him one cold and foggy morning. She summons a retired police detective who lives nearby, and the detective breaks down the door. Constant lies on his back in bed, hands behind his head, his throat slashed from ear to ear. No murder weapon is found. The windows, like the door to the bedroom and the front door to the boarding house, had been bolted and locked from the inside. The chimney and fireplace are too narrow to admit a child, or even the murderous monkey who perpetrated the crime in Poe’s Rue Morgue. It’s a delicious set-up.
In his preface to the novel, Zangwill reveals that he wrote “The Big Bow Mystery” in 14 days at the invitation of the editor of an evening newspaper called the Star. The story accordingly appeared as a serial in the paper’s columns over the course of a fortnight. Readers were invited to solve the mystery. Hundreds tried; none succeeded. Zangwill later claimed that as he composed the story he himself had no idea who the murderer would be.
The tale went on to appear in book form as “The Perfect Crime” and inspired a silent film of that name in 1928, an Otto Kruger movie called “The Crime Doctor” in 1934, and a Sidney Greenstreet-Peter Lorre version (“The Verdict”) in 1946.
Despite the wild success of his murder story, Zangwill never wrote another.
And why should he? After all, he’d conceived the perfect murder. And yet here’s the real kicker. The true reason I avoid murder mysteries is not that they make me feel stupid for reading them (see above), but because they make me feel stupid for never, ever being able to figure out whodunit. Nope, not once. Try as I might, I can never beat Poirot and his ilk to the punch – or is it the pinch? Same holds true for TV and cinema mysteries. I’ve simply on no occasion ever managed to nail the villain.
Until now.
That’s right. Zangwill’s locked-room mystery was so perfect that merely onethird of the way through the novel I realized there was only one possible solution to the brainteaser – and to my great surprise I’d teased it out. Even before the inquest and the grilling of the suspects and the trial.
And despite Zangwill serving up enough red herrings to supply a communist brunch.
(The scarlet kippers include a volume of Madame Blavatsky in the dead man’s room, a letter discussing Schopenhauer, and much else.) And despite the throwaway humor. (“The morning papers were pleasant reading for Grodman, who chuckled continuously over his morning egg, as if he had laid it.”) And despite the sudden guest appearance of William Ewart Gladstone. Or the airy prose: “Yells and groans and hoots and battle-cries blended in grotesque chorus, like one of Dvorak’s weird diabolical movements.” And the delightful distraction of the characters’ names: the landlady Mrs.
Drabdump, Detective Edward Wimp, the cobbler Peter Crowl, and Tom Mortlake, the murder victim’s friend and rival for the favors of Miss Jessie Dymond. Not for nothing was Zangwill sometimes referred to as the Jewish Dickens.
Yup, for once I solved a murder mystery, and the perfect crime at that. I’ve given you enough information here for you to solve it yourself. If you’re stumped – get – or download – the book.