A butchered body on her London doorstep inspired Baroness Emmuska Orczy to create fiction’s first armchair detective.
On the night of Sunday November 25, 1894, a 22-year-old man entered the Holland Arms public house in Kensington, West London. He looked and spoke like a true blue-blooded British gentleman. This was unsurprising, as the young man—Reginald Saunderson—was the nephew of a British member of parliament and a direct descendant of King William IV. Tall, handsome and athletically built, Saunderson seemed the very epitome of a muscular “toff.” Little wonder that he soon attracted the attention of an attractive young barmaid from Bristol named Augusta Dawes. The pair had a few drinks together and slipped out of the pub.
Later that same evening, a couple of artsy newly-weds returned home from visiting the husband's mother. Montagu Barstow was a charming and well-liked illustrator, his wife a striking and vivacious Hungarian painter. Baroness Emmuska Orczy (pronounced Ort-zee) was destined to become one of the world’s most popular authors. Her earnings would buy the couple a spectacular mansion in the hills above Monte Carlo. For now, she and her husband were blissfully happy in their tiny studio apartment just off Kensington High Street. Baroness Orczy had not yet considered making writing her profession. But the event that would transform her life was waiting for her just around the corner.
When the couple came into Holland Park Road, they were met by one of their friends, the painter Valentine Prinsep, cousin of Virginia Woolf. He was ashen-faced. A dreadful crime had been committed outside their home. The body of a woman had been found lying in a pool of blood on the pavement, her throat slashed.
The Baroness shuddered, recalling the Jack the Ripper murders of six years earlier. That bloody slaughter had happened in the East End of London—another world from the one she, Montagu, and their Bohemian friends inhabited. What had once seemed like a nightmarish fairy tale from a distant place had just landed, quite literally, on her doorstep.
The body on the pavement was quickly identified as that of Augusta Dawes. Her killer may have been a British aristocrat, but he’d recently escaped from Normansfield, an institution for “mentally affected gentleman.” His family had confined him there when he was 16. That was back in 1888, the year when the Ripper murders dominated the British media. The slayings had obsessed the teenage Saunderson. After killing Dawes, he fled to Dublin. From there he mailed a letter to the London police, detailing his crime. He signed the letter Jack the Ripper.
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In London, terror that the madman had returned briefly gripped the city. Then, four days later, Saunderson was arrested in Belfast. He was too young to have been The Ripper, whatever his disturbed imagination may have told him. He was found guilty of Dawes’ slaying and sent to Broadmoor, England’s maximum security facility for the criminally insane. He’d remain there for the rest of his days.
Back in Holland Park Road, Baroness Orczy thought about the murder. Her family, wealthy land-owning Hungarian aristocrats, had fled to London when she was a teenager after their farms had been torched in a peasant uprising. They’d settled in London, in Wimpole Street a few doors away from Wilkie Collins, “the grandfather of detective fiction.”
Emmuska quickly became fluent in English. She loved Britain. It was, she said, her “spiritual birthplace” (though maybe the food could have been a bit better). She studied art in West London, met and fell for Montagu Barstow. The relationship was divinely romantic, filled with love and fun (Baroness Orczy didn’t do unhappiness). They married and moved into their little apartment. They were surrounded by artist pals: Prinseps, Herbert Schmalz, Marcus Stone, Lord Leighton… And then, a week later, the bloody corpse.
The darkness she felt envelope her that night came to haunt Baroness Orczy. She determined on finding some way to explore it artistically. She had already sold a few stories to the London magazines. The clearest way to investigate the seamy underbelly of the city was using a detective. Sherlock Holmes was at his peak. The Baroness did not deal in pale imitations. She fixed on creating a sleuth who was the polar opposite of Arthur Conan Doyle’s dynamic crimefighter.
Over time, the man appeared before her. He was old, a little shabby. His hair was thin, worn in a comb-over style to disguise a bald spot. He sniffled as if he had a cold. He was thin as a stick and seemed always chilly. He wore a heavy overcoat of garish tweed even when he was sitting indoors. And he was always sitting indoors. In fact he never, as far as the reader was concerned, left an ABC teahouse just off The Strand in London’s West End.
The ABC was a popular chain of British cafes (the name was an acronym for Aerated Bread Company). In the first half of the 20th century, they were as ubiquitous in Britain as Starbucks are today. There were 250 branches in London alone. The ABCs were neat and warm. They epitomized a kind of breezy, comforting middle-class Englishness—the restaurant equivalent of a Richard Curtis movie.
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It was the ABC on Norfolk Street that the old man frequented. He’s called Bill Owen, but that name is seldom used. The Baroness usually called him simply The Old Man in the Corner. He would be the world’s first armchair detective, the ancestor of Nero Wolfe. The setting of the stories also marks them as the first genuine example of what we now call “cozy crime.”
The first Old Man in the Corner story was published in Royal Magazine in 1901. Baroness Orczy was paid the handsome fee of £60 for the tale ($85—the equivalent of around $10,000 today), with a demand for more. The stories follow a set pattern. Owen sits in the ABC. The glamorous reporter Polly Burton arrives bringing him the latest crime—murder, theft, blackmail—that is baffling Scotland Yard. He listens and considers while nervously tying complex knots in a length of string (a bit like Lou Solverson, the state cop in Fargo), and then he offers his solution. Polly is smart and self-confident, but she’s always amazed by his brilliance.
24 stories were published in all, the first collection The Case of Miss Elliott in 1905. They were highly popular, and there might have been more, but by then Baroness Orczy had made a trip to Paris with Montagu. While she was there another character popped into her head. He was a fashionable 18th Century English aristocrat and adventurer. His name was Sir Percy Blakeney. The world would know him better as The Scarlet Pimpernel. He’d feature in 15 novels, 2 volumes of short stories, a stage play, and 11 movies. He’d pay for Emmuska and her devoted husband to live royally in Monte Carlo.
Montagu Barstow passed away there in 1942. Coincidentally, that was the same year that Reginald Saunderson died in Broadmoor. The Baroness lived until 1947.