On a foggy London morning, in the slummy Bow area of town, a landlady is trying to wake up one of her lodgers. Puzzlingly, the door is locked and bolted, but the lodger appears not to be in his room…or maybe he’s…dead? The landlady gets all worked up and goes to get advice from her neighbour, the legendary, retired criminological genius Inspector Grodman.

A bit doubtful about her seemingly far-fetched conclusions, Grodman nevertheless agrees to look into the matter and breaks down the door. Inside the bedroom they make a ghastly discovery: the lodger, a well-known philanthropist and supporter of the downtrodden, lies dead in his bed with his throat cut.

As there’s no trace of any weapon inside the room, it can’t have been a suicide. But since the door and windows were bolted from the inside nobody could have gotten in and murdered him.

The police investigate but can’t make head or tail of it. The unsolvable locked-room mystery catches the public imagination, and with great fervour Londoners write letters to the newspapers. Somebody even speculates if a small monkey could have climbed in somehow and done it (a playful reference to Edgar Allan Poe’s seminal The Murders in the Rue Morgue). Eventually the police, in the absence of an actual solution to the crime, pin the guilt, randomly, on the most plausible suspect.

But does that really explain what happened? Inspector Grodman decides to come out of retirement to show how the pieces of the puzzle fit together. That’s the basic premise of one of the most delightful and influential locked-room murder mysteries of all time, The Big Bow Mystery by Israel Zangwill.

Zangwill was a popular novelist and playwright of the late 19th and early 20th century. His most famous drama remains The Melting Pot and he also had something of a political career in England. The Big Bow Mystery, originally published in 1891, is hailed as a classic detective story credited with introducing several innovative tricks of the trade, such as misdirection (the sly literary art of drawing your reader’s attention from what is relevant to instead focus on another specific, but misleading, aspect of the plot). The Big Bow Mystery also reads as a satire on Victorian England.

I had for long wanted to read this celebrated novel, but unfortunately books that old aren’t easily available in the bookshops, and I was about to give up hope when I suddenly found an excellent audiobook version with a very atmospheric reading by Adrian Praetzellis. The best thing is that The Big Bow Mystery is absolutely free to download from LibriVox.org!

For those who don’t know LibriVox—the organization keeps a rather low profile and doesn’t market its book catalogue—it was started in 2005 as a non-profit Internet initiative to make audio recordings of old, copyright-free books; the MP3 recordings are done by volunteers and then put out in the public domain. There are even CD booklets and album art for downloading with many titles, giving it a neat and professional feeling.

In their catalogue you find a great number of classics but more significantly, if you care to browse a bit, you’ll come across plenty of the choicest pulp. Naturally, I’ve tanked up my phone to listen to books on tedious bus and train journeys. Apart from The Big Bow Mystery, these are some of the other titles you might want to look up:

Whose Body? by Dorothy L. Sayers is a Lord Peter Wimsey mystery in which the dead body of a naked man is found in a bathtub, wearing nothing but a pair of pince-nez!

From the early pulp master Edgar Wallace—a prolific writer of some 175 novels and credited with having invented the modern thriller—you will find The Clue of the Twisted Candle, about a mystery writer being charged with murder.

There are several titles by Maurice Leblanc whose most famous creation is the gentleman thief-cum-detective Arsène Lupin; for example, The Confessions of Arsène Lupin and The Extraordinary Adventures of Arsène Lupin. Film buffs will recall that many Leblanc stories were filmed in the 1930s with John Barrymore starring as Lupin.

But perhaps the rarest treasure of all is Monsieur Lecoq (1868) by Émile Gaboriau—generally thought to be the first proper detective novel ever written, the blueprint from which Arthur Conan Doyle later developed Sherlock Holmes. One reason why Lecoq is lesser-known than Sherlock is because this novel was originally written in French. But, thanks to LibriVox’s public-mindedness, Lecoq can go on solving his mysteries into the 21st century to the delight of pulp fiction aficionados.

Zac O’Yeah is the author of Once Upon a Time in Scandinavistan and Mr Majestic: The Tout of Bengaluru.

Also Read | Zac’s previous Lounge columns

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