Monday, June 15, 2015

A Tongue-in-Cheek Assessment of THE BIG BOW MYSTERY by the Author Himself

Never let it be said that Israel Zangwill (1864-1926) suffered from an excess of modesty. In his introduction to The Big Bow Mystery (1892), Zangwill assessed his own artistic achievement. (Note: Comments in [brackets] are our own gratuitous editorial additions.)
While Zangwill is being playful, through all the facetiousness he does offer sound advice to the would-be mystery fictioneer:
As this little book was written some four years ago, I feel able to review it without prejudice. [Sure you do.]
A new book just hot from the brain is naturally apt to appear faulty to its begetter, but an old book has got into the proper perspective and may be praised by him without fear or favor. [A bit presumptuous, don't you think?]
"The Big Bow Mystery" seems to me an excellent murder story, as murder stories go, for, while as sensational as the most of them, it contains more humor and character creation than the best. ["He who speaks without modesty will find it difficult to make his words good." — Confucius]
Indeed, the humor is too abundant. Mysteries should be sedate and sober. There should be a pervasive atmosphere of horror and awe such as Poe manages to create. Humor is out of tone; it would be more artistic to preserve a somber note throughout. [When you have read The Big Bow Mystery, you'll see how facetious Zangwill is being here.]
But I was a realist in those days, and in real life mysteries occur to real persons with their individual humors, and mysterious circumstances are apt to be complicated by comic.
The indispensable condition of a good mystery is that it should be able and unable to be solved by the reader, and that the writer's solution should satisfy.
Many a mystery runs on breathlessly enough till the dénouement is reached, only to leave the reader with the sense of having been robbed of his breath under false pretenses.
And not only must the solution be adequate, but all its data must be given in the body of the story.
The author must not suddenly spring a new person or a new circumstance upon his reader at the end. Thus, if a friend were to ask me to guess who dined with him yesterday, it would be fatuous if he had in mind somebody of whom he knew I had never heard.
One would have imagined that nobody could take this seriously, for it is obvious that the mystery-story is just the one species of story that can not be told impromptu or altered at the last moment, seeing that it demands the most careful piecing together and the most elaborate dove-tailing.
Nevertheless, if you cast your joke upon the waters, you shall find it no joke after many days. This is what I read in the Lyttelton Times, New Zealand: "The chain of circumstantial evidence seems fairly irrefragable. From all accounts, Mr. Zangwill himself was puzzled, after carefully forging every link, how to break it. The method ultimately adopted I consider more ingenious than convincing." After that I made up my mind never to joke again, but this good intention now helps to pave the beaten path.
- You can find The Big Bow Mystery online HERE.
- The GAD Wiki reviews of Big Bow are HERE.

Category: Detective fiction criticism (from a detective fiction author)

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