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Spotlight on: The Big Bow Mystery by Israel Zangwill

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The Big Bow Mystery by Israel Zangwill Israel Zangwill, The Big Bow Mystery

In an interesting twist, New York upstart Dybbuk Press has gone from publishing solid horror anthologies (namely Teddy Bear Cannibal Massacre and Badass Horror) to rereleasing Jewish-related public-domain texts. The first was Maurice Liber's highly respected biography of Rashi, an important 11th-century rabbi.

Then came two novels by well-known British Zionist Israel Zangwill. Merely Mary Ann is a romance that was adapted into a Janet Gaynor film. The second of Zangwill's novels to be published by this burgeoning small press is The Big Bow Mystery, widely accepted to be the first novel-length locked-room mystery. (Edgar Allan Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" was not only the first mystery of any kind but also the first of this kind.)

On a foggy morning in early December, Mr. Arthur Constant is murdered in his lodgings at Mrs. Drabdump's in Bow, England. Due to the deceased's positive state of mind, the coroner rules out suicide. Unfortunately, due to the location of the body and an additional set of circumstances, he also rules out murder. The ensuing mystery brings George Grodman — ex-policeman and popular author of Criminals I Have Caught — out of retirement, much to the chagrin of his former colleagues.

That is just the beginning, but that is pretty much all that is written toward the solution of the puzzling death until the final chapter, where all is revealed. For the intervening pages, author Zangwill holds up a mirror to Victorian society and laughs at what he sees. Zangwill draws his characters with very broad strokes and names them with a Dickensian flair (let's just say that Mrs. Drabdump's lodgings leave something to be desired). The solution is clever and imaginative in its own way, but it is the modern-style humor (very dry and typically British) that keeps The Big Bow Mystery accessible to the 21st-century reader (though fans of Bleak House will likely enjoy it as well).

The Big Bow Mystery is available in many electronic forms online for free, including text from Project Gutenberg and audio from Librivox (with an entertaining and adept performance from Adrian Praetzellis that is all the more astonishing coming from an amateur), so why would you actually spend money on this particular edition? Well, first, publisher Tim Lieder's introduction puts the book into its proper social context. Also contained within are several original illustrations by Justin Weber and Thien Tran that add considerably to the reading of this century-old text — not to mention the evocative cover painting by Mark Gerther, Merry-Go-Round, dating from 1919. Plus, this edition also includes a bonus short story, Zangwill's "Cheating the Gallows," which is similar in structure (it's a short mystery), but has a very strange solution that makes it an odd piece of work indeed.

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