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Old Man in the Corner. The Old Man in the Corner was created by the Baroness Emmuska Orczy (Lady Molly, Man in Grey (II), Hector Ratichon, Scarlet Pimpernel, Skin O’My Tooth) and appeared in thirty-seven stories and three collections between 1901 and 1925, beginning with “The Fenchurch Street Mystery” (The Royal Magazine, May 1901).

The Old Man in the Corner is one of the first and remains one of the greatest of the Armchair Detectives. The Old Man sits in the corner of a London tea shop, fiddling with a piece of string and talking to Polly Burton, a young reporter for the Evening Observer. She is always eager for a story or a good tale and eggs him on when he says things like

It has often been declared that a murder–a successful murder, I mean–can never be committed single handed in a busy city, and that on the other hand, once a murder is committed by more than one person, one of the accomplices is sure to betray the other, and that is the reason why comparatively so few crimes remain undetected.

When he says something along those lines, as he usually does, she instantly contradicts him, thereby irritating him enough to launch him into another story. The Old Man is bored with ordinary crime, only taking on those cases which are most baffling and which have completely mystified the police. He is interested in a crime only when it “resembles a clever game of chess, with many intricate moves which all tend to one solution.” He cares far more about solving the puzzle of the crime than in helping the police solve them or in seeing that the guilty party is punished, and never tells the police his conclusions; he is satisfied simply to solve the case and boast about it to Polly. In “The Mysterious Death in Percy Street” the Old Man tells Polly about how a man named Bill Owen murdered his aunt. The Old Man describes how Owen was never suspected of the crime and was, in the Old Man’s words, “one of the most ingenious men of the age” and that his crime was “one of the cleverest bits of work accomplished outside Russian diplomacy.” The message of the story is that the Old Man himself is Bill Owen, which makes Old Man not merely callous and vain but ultimately a villain.

He is shabby, irritable, rude to Polly, condescending toward the police and the public, and extremely smart. He is old, pale, thin, and has thinning, light colored hair.

* I'm including the Old Man in the Corner stories in the Best of the Encyclopedia list because they are both enjoyable to read and archetypal. As mentioned, the Old Man in the Corner was one of the first Armchair Detectives; he was also arguably the greatest, to the point where he became the archetype of the form. Orczy wasn't yet famous when she wrote the Old Man stories, so their lasting fame and influence had nothing to do with Orczy's name and everything to do with the quality of the writing and the freshness of the concept. The Old Man is a memorable character, acerbic, sardonic, and vaguely sinister, and the stories are well-told and well-plotted, holding up even today. Fun stuff--recommended. 

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