A century and more after he solved a dozen baffling crimes without ever leaving the A.B.C. tearoom where he held court for an impressionable reporter, the anonymous hero created by the author of The Scarlet Pimpernel is back in print.
The setup never varies: Polly Burton, of the Evening Observer, sits across the table from a nameless old man who asks her opinion about recent unsolved mysteries, summarizes the events of the cases himself, gloats over her feeble efforts at solving them, and then looks up from the string he’s been compulsively knotting just long enough to produce a dazzling solution himself. The first and best-known of them, the endlessly reprinted “The Fenchurch Street Mystery,” sets the pattern for most of the others in its deceptively simple tale of a down-at-heels man found murdered shortly after attempting to put the touch on an old friend he’d saved from a criminal charge years before the friend left England for Russia and prospered beyond the victim’s dreams. After offering his solution, the tweed-suited sleuth returns to solve a series of robberies, assaults, and murders whose settings, ranging as far from London as Edinburgh and Dublin, never require him to leave his chair. The mysteries, heavily dependent on disguises, family loyalties, interchangeable identities, and 180-degree reversals, are so repetitious that they’re best consumed in the way they’re solved, one per sitting. But there’s no denying the old man’s gift for brisk, sarcastic expositions and mordantly epigrammatic solutions or his powerful influence on a generation of more famous golden-age sleuths and stories that followed.
In his grasp of both logic and theater, in fact, the eponymous sleuth is both the most successful challenger to his great contemporary Sherlock Holmes and an indispensable model for all the armchair detectives who follow.