The idea behind the Teahouse Detective: Miss Polly Burton of the Evening Observer (the Express Post in this volume), a member of the ‘distinguished’ British press (jibe?), is a regular customer at the ABC Tearoom on Norfolk Street. Despite her reservations, she engages an old man in conversation. He’s down at heel, a little threadbare, but when he talks she is captivated by his perceptive analysis of some of the most perplexing cases of the day.
Unravelled Knots is the third volume of Teahouse Detective short stories, following The Old Man in the Corner and The Case of Miss Elliott (Pushkin Vertigo 2018 and 2019, respectively). Thirteen mystifying cases for Orczy’s rival to Sherlock Holmes. It’s nearly twenty years since Polly Burton has sat with the man in the teashop, or even visited the teashop, but he hardly seems to have changed at all. Our detective has neither mellowed in his opinion of the police or weakened in his powers of reasoning and he is as keen on matters of criminology as he ever was.
Here are a few examples of the set up to my favourite stories in the collection:
‘The Mystery of the Khaki Tunic’
Miss Mary Clarke, a middle-aged spinster, has rented Hardacres from Lord Foremeere. Since the armistice she has run a small holding, mostly chickens, occasionally assisted by her errant brother, Arthur, a man with a good war record with the East Glebeshires. However, like a lot of men, Arthur is shiftless and drifting these days. Mary is a quiet woman, she delivers her eggs and calls once a week to see Lady Foremeere, Arthur is much more outgoing. He is in love with April St. Jude, the daughter of Lord Foremeere by a previous marriage, but a match between the penniless ex-soldier and the heiress is impossible.
Emily Baker, a girl of the village, calls everyday to do Miss Mary’s housework. She lets herself into the house one day but the silence is disquieting, Miss Mary is nowhere to be seen and her bed has not been slept in. The parlour door is locked and there’s a smell of gas coming from the room. Emily runs to the police station, when they break down the door they find Mary’s body. Suspicion falls on her brother, but the piece of evidence that initially condemns him may just be the thing that saves him from hanging for his sister’s murder – the khaki tunic. This is a clever, twisty tale, as ingeniously contrived as anything in Sherlock Holmes.
‘The Mystery of the Ingres Masterpiece’
“The theft of the Ingres masterpiece was one of those cases which interested the public in every civilized country, and here in England where most people are bitten with the craze for criminal investigation it created quite a sensation in its way.”
How can a painting be in two places at once? Polly admits that her own article for the Express Post can offer only conjecture and speculation. No such doubts for the Teahouse Detective. Once again he explodes the mystery for Polly. Ingres’ La Fiancée is stolen from the chateau of the Duc and Duchess de Rochechouart in broad daylight. The police are baffled. Two years later the painting turns up in England at an auction of goods belonging to an American millionaire. The police investigate but this painting was in America at the time it was supposed to have been stolen in France. A play on the impossible mystery with a sense of humour to it.
‘The Mystery of the Dog’s Tooth Cliff’
The Teahouse Detective can hardly hide his glee when talking about the judge censuring the police in this case:
“Of course you always know,” I remarked drily. [Polly]
“Nearly always,” he replied with ludicrous self-complacency. “Have I not proved to you over and over again that with a little reasonable common sense and a minimum of logic there is no such thing as an impenetrable mystery in criminology.”
The barracks-like building on the west cliff is an industrial school, the Woodforde institute (President General Sir Arkwright Jones). Two small boys find the body of Janet Smith, head matron, at the foot of the cliff, below lovers walk. At first it is assumed to be an accident, then suicide and finally murder. Her lover, Captain Franklin Marston, falls under suspicion, the headmaster Major Gibbons also had an eye for Miss Smith, but there are other things at play here. A complex and satisfying short story.
‘The Mystery of the White Carnation’
“You may talk about it, if you like.”
He did like, fortunately for me, because, frankly, I could not see the daylight in that maze of intrigue…
Captain Denver Shillington, a millionaire is engaged to Angela Buckley, the daughter of Lord Maxwell, when Shillinigton is murdered there are no obvious suspects. Family secrets begin to emerge, everyone has something to hide but who is the killer?
Having now read the three volumes of the Teahouse Detective I know that he is one of the only rivals to Sherlock Holmes who can stand comparison. The Teahouse Detective is an intriguing character, all the more interesting because he is shrouded in personal mystery (Who is he? Why does he have it in for the police?). He doesn’t work with the police or get involved in the cases he solves over a cup of tea at the comfort of a fireside table in the corner of a London tearoom. If anything, the mysteries here are a little more complex than the earlier volumes, the writing a little more sophisticated. They are entertaining and will delight fans of cosy crime and the golden heyday of British crime writing. The three volumes are more subversive as a collection than Sherlock Holmes tackling themes around the suffragettes, women’s rights and class divisions (class issues are big in this collection). Orczy’s stories have style and the mysteries are very satisfying in Unravelled Knots.
Paul Burke 4/4
The Teahouse Detective: Unravelled Knots by Baroness Orczy
Pushkin Vertigo 9781782275886 pbk Oct 2019