Baroness Orczy was best known for her Scarlet Pimpernel books. I’ve never read the Scarlet Pimpernel stories, but I did see one of the movie adaptations and enjoyed it immensely. For those unfamiliar with the Scarlet Pimpernel, it’s about a character masquerading as a fantastically absurd English gentleman who secretly rescued the French aristocracy during the Revolution.
Having enjoyed the Scarlet Pimpernel movie adpatation, I was intrigued to see a detective novel written by the Baroness Orczy. The cover of my edition of The Teahouse Detective makes the claim that it’s the first armchair detective novel (though a quick Internet search suggests Edgar Allan Poe’s The Mystery of Marie Rogêt actually claims that honor).
The Teahouse Detective was originally published in serial, and reads more like a short story collection than a novel. It opens with a female reporter sitting at a cafe and a fidgety man at a corner table striking up a conversation with her regarding popular mysteries featured in the news. The man is derisive of police; he thinks they are inept, and that he can do a far better job solving the popular crimes of the day:
“There is no such thing as a mystery in connection with any crime, provided intelligence is brought to bear upon its investigation.”
When the female reporter suggests, rather sardonically, that the man should offer his deductive reasoning to the police he replies:
“Well, you know, for one thing I doubt if they would accept them; and in the second place my inclinations and my duty would – were I to become an active member of the detective force – nearly always be in direct conflict. As often as not my sympathies go to the criminal who is clever and astute enough to lead our entire police force by the nose.”
For the rest of the book, the reporter repeatedly returns to the cafe, each time encountering the man in the corner who proceeds to regale her with his resolution of crimes that have stumped the police. In most cases, the man has never seen the scene of the crime, nor met any of the suspects, yet he confidently solves each mystery from his seat in the cafe.
Perhaps the idea of an armchair detective capable of solving crimes without leaving the comfort of their own surroundings was a wild notion at the time this was published. For me personally, the concept and the stories contained within the novel, did not survive the test of time. Each of the mysteries was highly predictable, every twist easily foreseen. Additionally, I had a hard time connecting to the characters, as very little focus was given to character development.
The story may have been more innovative at the time of publishing, but unlike other classic detective novels this one barely held my attention.