The Case of Miss Elliott by Baroness Orczy

Déjà vu all over again…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

An old man sits in the corner of a teahouse, endlessly twisting pieces of string into elaborate knots and mulling over the great unsolved mysteries of the day. Opposite him is our narrator, an unnamed female journalist who, despite finding the old man intensely irritating, nevertheless can’t help being impressed by the ingenious solutions he comes up with.

This is a collection of twelve short stories featuring the amateur ‘tec who was always known as The Old Man in the Corner until a radio adaptation decided, for reasons unknown to me, to change his title to The Teahouse Detective, the name also used by this new edition from Pushkin Vertigo. The stories were originally published in various magazines and later collected into three volumes. Chronologically this is the second batch of stories, although it was the first collection to be published, in 1905.

Each story takes the same format: the journalist, puzzled over a case in the newspapers, visits the teahouse where the old man sits eating cheesecake and playing with his string. He reveals that he knows all about the case in question, and then relates all the known details before adding his own solution at the end. He is dismissive of the police and is not a pursuer of justice – he never passes his solution to the authorities. For him, it’s the intellectual satisfaction of solving the mystery which is important. For a reader used to following a detective around watching him gather evidence and interview suspects, I found this a rather odd format – it’s like getting the beginning and the end of a mystery but missing out all the fun bit in the middle. It works, and she writes well so that the stories are entertaining enough, but I didn’t find them nearly as satisfying as traditionally formatted mysteries.

Challenge details:
Book: 3
Subject Heading: A New Era Dawns
Publication Year: 1905

After the first few stories, I also began to have feelings of déjà vu. I wondered if perhaps I’d read the collection before – I know I’ve read at least some of the Old Man stories in my teens. But then I realised it’s not the stories that are familiar – it’s the plot points and clues, and even character names in some of them. Regular visitors to my blog will know of my life-long devotion to Sherlock Holmes, and I suspect I shared that love with Baroness Orczy. We have a dog which doesn’t bark in the night; Mr Hosmer Angel appears with a different name and persona, but a similar plan; the King of Bohemia puts in an appearance. Occasionally it almost feels a little like homage – it surely can’t be coincidence that one of her villains is called Stapylton. The stories are different enough for me not to be hurling accusations of plagiarism, but I must say I found several of the problems remarkably easy to solve because they feature plot points from the Holmes stories too obviously.

Baroness Orczy

Having forced me to make comparisons, of course this doesn’t work to Orczy’s advantage. Sherlock Holmes is a far superior creation in every way, as is Conan Doyle’s effortless writing style. These have none of the warmth and friendship of the Holmes/Watson relationship, and nowhere does Orczy achieve the layers of drama, tension, humour and even horror of the master. These are more like puzzles – like elaborate crossword clues where the only purpose is to find the solution. As I finished each story, the characters slipped smoothly from my mind, since I had never been made to care about any of them. The Old Man and the journalist too never come to life, since they don’t ever do anything – they are a framing device for telling a story, that’s all.

So overall I found this quite an enjoyable way to while away a few hours, but no more than that. I wonder if they’d be remembered at all were it not for Orczy’s much more famous creation, The Scarlet Pimpernel, keeping her name in the public eye. However, Martin Edwards tells us in his The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books that the collection enjoyed considerable popularity when it came out, and they’re certainly entertaining enough to make them worth reading. Mostly, though, they made me want to re-read some Holmes stories…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Pushkin Vertigo.

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36 thoughts on “The Case of Miss Elliott by Baroness Orczy

  1. Funnily enough, your description at the top of your review of the old man’s obsessive playing with string, and his wishing to solve puzzels for intelectual reasons immediately put Sherlock Holmes into my head. He has clearly been the inspiration for this character, though the result sounds much less dynamic. I’ll probably end up saving this for a time when I want something fairly easy going without too much brain power required from me as a reader.

    • So many early detectives are direct descendants of Holmes, but I’ve never seen someone use quite so many plot points and similar names as these. However, the stories are different enough to make then enjoyable, and definitely suitable for those times when your brain needs a bit of a rest… 😉

  2. The setup for this collection does sound interesting, FictionFan. I’ve read a few stories where an unknown narrator tells the detective about a case and gets the answer (and, actually, one where a character offers to tell about a case). They can work well, so I’m glad you enjoyed these, even if they weren’t in the real depth you would have liked.

    • They were enjoyable enough but I found that going straight from problem to solution without the investigation bit in the middle didn’t work as well for me. But they are well written so they pass a few hours quite pleasantly!

  3. Oh dear. I’m disappointed that it rated so low. Glad some of the stories were enjoyable at least.
    I hope this won’t color your view of Scarlet Pimpernel.

    • They were quite enjoyable, but I found going straight from problem to solution without the investigation bit in the middle meant I never felt too involved in them. The writing is good though, so I definitely haven’t been put off The Scarlet Pimpernel! Maybe on my next Classics Club list… 😀

  4. The set up sounds different and interesting. I’ve only read one Sherlock Holmes story (I probably never cease to amaze or horrify you with my literary shortcomings!!), so maybe that would make them seem fresher to me plot-wise.

    I was a teenager when I read The Scarlet Pimpernel, so I honestly don’t remember anything about her writing style. (or the novel, for that matter)

    • Hahahaha! I admit the thought of you not having read the Holmes stories sends shivers of horror down my spine – but that means you’ve got them all to look forward to!! 😉 But I’m always horrified at all the books everyone else seems to have read that I haven’t too – like The Secret Garden – or The Scarlet Pimpernel! I will read it one day… 😀

  5. I have to be in the right mood for reading short stories. These, while they sound somewhat interesting, aren’t as appealing to me right now, probably for just the reasons you indicated. Oh, well, it’s almost time for tennis anyway!

    • Yes, I don’t mind stories like this as fillers or breaks between two heavier books, but reading a whole volume of them at once makes them feel too similar. A bedside dipper! Can’t believe the tennis is due already. So sorry Andy still isn’t fully fit to play… 😦

  6. I have read one or two of Baroness Orczy’s mysteries that have appeared in other classic crime collections, but I think a whole book of them might be too much for me, especially if they all have the same format. I did love The Scarlet Pimpernel, though!

    • I do find a whole volume of stories that follow basically the same format gets a bit tedious after a bit, but this would make a good bedside dipper book for sleepless nights! I still haven’t read The Scarlet Pimpernel, but I think it will appear on my next Classics Club list (yes, I’m planning it already, even though the original one still has two years to run… 😀 )

  7. I’ve read one of the collections of these short stories called The Old Man in the Corner. I quite enjoyed reading them – they don’t overtax the brain.

    • I think that’s the collection where he first appears, although confusingly this one was published first. Yes, I thought they were quite enjoyable too – a good collection to keep by the bedside for dipping into rather than reading straight through, perhaps…

  8. This sounds odd. Its definitely an unusual set-up not to have any detection, just explanation. I’m not in a rush to read this but I’d be tempted by the odd one now and again to while away some time 🙂

    • I did find it odd, and realised that it’s actually the bit in the middle I enjoy most, where the detection happens. But they’re quite fun mysteries and well written, so would be a good bedside table book for dipping into.

  9. I don’t think anyone will ever live up to Sherlock Holmes, so that’s sort of a lost battle. But this collection does pique my interest with its unique format! I had no idea she wrote the Scarlet Pimpernel, and although I’ve heard of the book and read a few pages of it, I’ve never read it all the way through..most likely never will haha

  10. I’ve never heard of this collection but the title alone mades curious. So instead of drinking tea as he solves the mysteries he twirls a string. If no tea drinking is going on at all I’m already feeling a bit disappointed. 😂

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