The Old Man in the Corner

by Baroness Orczy

The Man in the Corner
New York: Dodd, Mead & Co.
Cover by H. M. Brock

Today, Baroness Orczy is almost exclusively known as the creator of the Scarlet Pimpernel, the prototype for innumerable dual-identity heroes from Zorro to Batman. However, the Baroness had a long and productive literary career, and while the Pimpernel was undoubtedly the character that made her famous, she made another important contribution to popular fiction before that dashing blade's first adventure was published.

In 1901, before the Baroness had yet created the character that would bring her wealth and fame, she was living in modest London lodgings with her husband, illustrator Montagu Barstow; the couple earned their livelihood through selling their work to magazines—illustrations in Barstow's case, short stories in the Baroness's. The Baroness had already had several stories published by the time she decided to begin a series of detective tales, to capitalize on the renewed public interest in mysteries resulting from the return of Sherlock Holmes to the Strand magazine. Acting on the advice of her husband, the Baroness set out to first create a detective as unlike Holmes as possible, and then create mysteries for him to solve.

The result was the Old Man in the Corner, the prototype of the "armchair detective," who solves mysteries simply by analyzing information supplied to him by other characters. Later fictional sleuths like Nero Wolfe, Hercule Poirot, and even the early pulp version of the Shadow all owe a debt to the Old Man. In turn, the Old Man himself may have owed something to Sherlock Holmes' brother Mycroft, an enormously intelligent but lazy individual who lacked the get-up-and-go to emulate his brother. However, the Baroness was the first to choose such a character as her principal character.

The Baroness was also the first mystery writer to structure her stories entirely around a puzzle and its solution; earlier detective stories, many of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s tales included, placed as much emphasis on frightening atmosphere, fantastic murder methods, and other highly dramatic touches. Such highlighting of the puzzle would become a regular feature of the “golden age” of British and American detective fiction in the years between the two world wars.

Unlike most Golden Age detective novels, however, the detective and the culprits in Orczy’s stories never come into direct confrontation (indeed, the Old Man's conclusions are non-provable in court, as often as not, and many of the criminals that are revealed through his ratiocination are safely beyond the reach of the law). In the Old Man in the Corner stories, the interest does not come from suspense as to the perils faced by the protagonists or as to whether the villain will be brought to book, but from the untangling of the mystery through the remarkable reasoning powers of the Old Man.

The Old Man in the Corner stories you are about to read are not (with one exception) the original versions published in The Royal Magazine; instead, they hail from The Old Man in the Corner, a full-length book published in 1908. For this collection, the Baroness slightly rewrote twelve of her first thirteen Old Man stories in order to fit them into semi-novelistic form. In the process, she gave a name (“Polly Burton”) to the Old Man's confidante (an unnamed "Lady Journalist" in the magazine versions of the stories), and incorporated various references to Polly’s personal life which served as a connecting thread between the stories. These alterations also entailed the conversion of the tales from first-person narration (by the "Lady Journalist") to third-person narration. Finally, several of the stories were split into two (or more) chapters so as to disguise their short-story origins. We have retained Orczy’s revisions to the text, but recombined the chapters so that they once again constitute twelve stories; we have also restored the original magazine titles to two of the tales, which were renamed in the book version.

As a bonus, we’ve also included “The Glasgow Mystery,” the only one of the Baroness’s first thirteen Old Man stories never revised for inclusion in the 1908 book. The controversy that caused the story’s exclusion is described in its introduction.

Dan Neyer
July, 2013
Introduction © 2013 by Dan Neyer

Bonus: A The Royal Magazine article about the Baroness Orczy, one of its most popular contributors, from the April, 1902 issue.

(Editor's Note: The H. M. Brock Illustrations are taken from the 1909 Dodd, Mead & Co. Edition of The Man in the Corner as found at The Internet Archive. Brock provided the cover, frontispiece and, oddly, only seven illustrations for the twelve stories that appeared in the volume. We have included these illustrations as they appeared in the 1909 printing. One change, however, is that the frontispiece is now included with the text of “The York Mystery,” as the page numbers in the list of illustrations indicate that the image was meant for that story.)

For reasons that are not known, the Baroness changed the titles for "The Brighton Mystery" and "The Birmingham Mystery," when these Old Man stories were collected in book form. We have chosen to use the story titles as they originally appeared in The Royal Magazine and have appended the "new" titles in parentheses in both instances.

October, 1908 (Dedication from the 1908 collection)

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