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THE BIG BOWMYSTERY: JEWISH IDEMlTY AND THE ENGLISH DETECTIVE NOVEL Meri-Jane Rochelson Florida International University Detective fiction has traditionally been viewed as a conservative genre, popular because reassuring, with its neat solutions, its reUance on "fair play" and the efficacy of reason, and its final upholding of the social order. Late Victorian detective fiction, in particular, is said to be "read now with a feeling of coziness and nostalgia, not only as a period piece but because of its implicit assumption that the status quo is correct and unchanging" (Aisenberg 7). In fact, however, although stereotypic conceptions of Victorian "coziness" have clung to popular genres with more tenacity than to other forms, the nineteenth-century detective novel could indeed serve as a vehicle for cultural criticism, with the power to unsettle rather than reassure its readers. Even a Sherlock Holmes story such as The Sign of Four invites the attentive reader to evaluate assumptions about race underlying British imperialism. The subject of this essay, The Big Bow Mystery (1891), one of the first and most successful "sealed room" novels in English, well illustrates the subversive potential of the detective genre. Its detective-hero strikes out against social institutions and ethical norms and, as the fiction unfolds to the reader, the work itself subverts the norms and expectations of the detective genre. IUuminated by ritual theories of culture, The Big Bow Mystery appears as a parable of ethnic marginality, embodying a haunting subtext of its author's own often hidden tensions. And as it reveals the anxieties and anger of marginaUty, it undermines its readers' confident assumptions about the social order and the nature of good and evil. Israel Zangwill, the author of The Big Bow Mystery, was born in London in 1864 to Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. The position of the estabUshed church in England meant that political emancipation for Jews came as late as 1858, after a long ParUamentary struggle; Oxford and Cambridge began granting degrees to Jewish students only in 1871 (see Henriques; also Roth 253, 289 and Endelman 77-80). By the 1890s, Victorian Review Yl2 (Winter 1991). 12Victorian Review however, English Jews lived with their Gentile neighbors in a state of civil equaUty that presented its own dilemmas. Younger Jews could now enter into the mainstream of English culture, which offered opportunity and encouraged assimilation. At the same time, they were drawn by the pulls of family and tradition which, while a nurturant source of strength, placed emphasis on the differences between Jews and others. The tensions created were especiaUy acute for the first generation born in England, such as ZangwiU. Through essays, novels, stories, and plays—including Children of (he Ghetto (1892), Dreamers of the Ghetto (1898), and The MeltingPot (1909)—ZangwiU explored the dilemmas ofemancipation and became a major spokesman for English Jewry as weU as a popular celebrity among British and American Jews. Despite his fame as a Jewish writer, however, in 1898 Zangwill told an interviewer that he planned to "alternate my Jewish work with an ordinary novel" (Harris 107), a statement which reflects both discomfort with the ethnic label and a desire for wider recognition (which he attained). Accordingly, ZangwiU's Uterary output includes numerous forays into the popular genres of his time: "new humor" in the 1890s, stories à la Maupassant, the "disUlusioned artist" novel, political satire, and his one work of detective fiction, The BigBow Mystery. In tribute to the interest it generated at first and still commands, The Big Bow Mystery has been reissued frequently in book form, most recently in a 1986 paperback edition by CarroU and Graf. Its plot has been used as the basis for three feature films, The Perfect Crime (1928), The Crime Doctor (1934), and The Verdict (1946), this last featuring Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre (see Adams 100). Although it first appeared as a serial in the radical daily London Star, The Big Bow Mystery has been appreciated for its ingenious plot rather than its poUtical dimensions (most of which disappear in the film adaptations), and its ethnic subtext has gone unnoticed.1 I would argue, however, that beyond the pleasures it affords as a well-crafted detective thriUer, The Big...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 11-20
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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