The Old Man in the Corner

The Old Man in the Corner
The Old Man In the Corner  
1909 1st edition
Cover of the 1909 1st edition
Author(s) Baroness Orczy
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Publisher Greening & Co
Publication date 1909
Followed by The Case of Miss Elliot

Created by Baroness Orczy, author of the famous Scarlet Pimpernel series, The Old Man In the Corner was one of the earliest armchair detectives, popping up with so many others in the wake of the huge popularity of the Sherlock Holmes stories.

The Old Man In the Corner (U.S. edition: The Man In the Corner) is one of three books of short stories featuring Bill Owen, Orczy's armchair detective (unnamed until after 'The Mysterious Death in Percy Street'), published after The Case of Miss Elliot; the last book in the series is Unravelled Knots.

The Man in the Corner first appeared in The Royal Magazine in 1901 in a series of six "Mysteries of London". The following year he returned in seven "Mysteries of Great Cities" set in large provincial centers of the British Isles. These were all narrated by Miss Polly Burton, a young journalist who related the narrative of the 'man in the corner', while eating at the Aërated Bread Company. For the 1909 book, twelve of these mysteries were rewritten in the third person. The Glasgow Mystery (the first of "The Mysteries of Great Cities") was not reprinted until all seven were collected in Rivals of Sherlock Holmes (1978).[citation needed]

The Old Man relies mostly upon sensationalistic "penny dreadful" newspaper accounts, with the occasional courtroom visit. He narrates all this information, while tying complicated knots in a piece of string, to a female Journalist who frequents the same tea-shop (the ABC Teashop on the corner of Norfolk Street and the Strand). They enjoy an antagonistic relationship, as the Journalist attempts to cut the Old Man's ego down to size and the Old Man trumps her every time.

The mysteries themselves are typical of Edwardian crime fiction, resting on a solid foundation of unhappy marriages and the inequitable division of family property. Other aspects of the time are illustrated by a murder in the London underground system; murder of a female doctor; and two cases involving artists living in "bohemian" lodgings. Another new and noteworthy feature of these cases: no one is ever brought to justice, and in fact most of the villains cannot be proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

The mysteries included in this volume are

  • The Fenchurch Street Mystery
  • The Robbery in Phillimore Terrace
  • The York Mystery
  • The Mysterious Death on the Underground Railway
  • The Liverpool Mystery
  • The Edinburgh Mystery
  • The Theft at the English Provident Bank
  • The Dublin Mystery
  • An Unparalleled Outrage (The Brighton Mystery)
  • The Regent's Park Murder
  • The De Genneville Peerage (The Birmingham Mystery)
  • The Mysterious Death in Percy Street

Film and other media

The Old Man in the Corner was featured in a series of twelve British two-reel silent films, made by the Stoll Film Company in 1924, written and directed by Hugh Croise and starring Rolf Leslie as The Old Man and Renee Wakefield as journalist Mary Hatley (Polly Burton in the book). These featured mysteries from each of the three collections:

  • The Affair at the Novelty Theatre
  • The Brighton Mystery
  • The Hocussing of Cigarette
  • The Kensington Mystery (?)
  • The Mystery of Brudenell Court
  • The Mystery of Dogstooth Cliff
  • The Mystery of the Khaki Tunic
  • The Northern Mystery (?)
  • The Regent's Park Mystery
  • The Tragedy at Barnsdale Manor
  • The Tremarne Case
  • The York Mystery

In the early 1970s Thames TV presented The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes based on the anthologies by Hugh Greene. The second series (1973) began with "The Mysterious Death on the Underground Railway" featuring Judy Geeson as Polly Burton.

The radio series The Teahouse Detective was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 starring Bernard Hepton as "The Man in the Corner" and Suzanne Burdon as Polly Burton. The stories in the series were adapted for radio by Michael Butt and included:


  • The Metropolitan Line Murder (The Mysterious Death on the Underground Railway)
  • The York Murder
  • The Body in the Barge (The Fenchurch Street Mystery)
  • The De Genneville Peerage


  • The Dublin Mystery
  • The Edinburgh Mystery
  • The Brighton Mystery
  • The London Mystery (The Regent's Park Murder)


  • Allan K. Russell (ed.) Rivals of Sherlock Holmes (Castle Books, 1978) ISBN 0890092079
  • T. J. Binyon, "Murder Will Out: The Detective in Fiction", Oxford University Press, 1989, ISBN 0-19-219223-X, p. 49-50
  • E. F. Bleiler (ed.) The Old Man in the Corner, Twelve Mysteries (Dover, 1980) ISBN 0486239721

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