Israel Zangwill’s Big Bow Street Mystery

big_bow_mysteryMrs. Drabdump, of 11 Glover Street, Bow, was one of the few persons in London whom fog did not depress. She went about her work quite as cheerlessly as usual.

She is quite a brilliant, gloomy character of a landlady, and the whole of this novel was immensely enjoyable. The actual locked-room mystery was perhaps a little heavy handed, but for a serial written in four weeks — that had the felicity of responding to some of its reader’s guesses within its pages — it is quite awesome. I loved the nod to Dickens in the names and the form of it, but it is far funnier and stripped of most of the Dickensian sentimentality.

There are a number of funny digs at hack writing in here, in the introduction as well as the story.

So much written about the East End was written to to uncover and to educate on poverty and working class misery on the one hand, or to titillate with crime and tales of the underworld. It occurred to me halfway through this how wonderful it was to read something without any of those aims. To read something set in the East End because the East End is what the author knew, to involve the whole panoply of East End characters, from landladies to Oxford and Toynbee House gentlemen to labour organisers with political pretensions to hack journalists scrounging their way and their ongoing debates with their friends the cobblers and the ex-detectives. Some theosophy thrown in along with the socialism. It is therefore mocking and irreverent, but compassionate too. Written from the inside as one of this great diverse throng, too often reduced to caricature.

That said, there is no doubt where his sympathies lie, which of course I also loved. This is a time of organising to change the world. Near the end he allows himself an aside:

A sudden consciousness of the futility of his existence pierced the little cobbler like an icy wind. He saw his own life, and a hundred million lives like his, swelling and breaking like bubbles on a dark ocean, unheeded, uncared for.

“The Cause of the People,” he murmured, brokenly, “I believe in the Cause of the People. There is nothing else.”

Israel_ZangwillIsrael Zangwill (1864-1926) born in London to immigrant parents, was long a champion of the oppressed. In reading about the suffragettes and East End struggles, his name appears time and time again. He had a complicated relationship to Zionism, wrote numerous books and plays, including a play about America as the ‘melting pot’ which earned him a letter from Roosevelt. Reading this, I thought to myself he is someone I would have really loved to know, so I shall investigate further at some point — or read more of his fiction.

 

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