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Freeman, R Austin

Page history last edited by Jon 12 years, 10 months ago

R Austin FreemanR Austin Freeman (1862-1943) was an English doctor. He created the first and best-known forensic scientist, Dr John Thorndyke. Freeman was born in London, the son of a tailor. He took a medical degree from Middlesex Hospital Medical College. He married Annie Elizabeth Edwards in 1887 and had two sons. He travelled to the Gold Coast of Africa for work, but after seven years was invalided out. He returned to England unable to work in medicine and began writing fiction in 1902. There followed a long series of Dr Thorndyke mysteries, including some of the first 'inverted' mystery stories, where the identity of the criminal is revealed at the outset and the interest of the story lies in seeing how the detection is done. Freeman also wrote under the name of Clifford Ashdown, about his other series character, Romney Pringle.


Many of Freeman's mysteries are available as free downloads from Project Gutenberg or Gutenberg Australia. Paperback copies can be ordered from Lulu.


R Austin Freeman by Wyatt James


Richard Austin Freeman started his career as a Colonial Office doctor in West Africa, but was invalidated out having contracted blackwater fever (luckily not Ebola, otherwise we should never have had 40 years' worth of Dr John Evelyn Thorndyke novels!). Freeman's influence in the detective novel sphere was powerful beyond expectation, although it took many years for his reputation to develop. Thorndyke, while not the prototype (Holmes had his cigarette ashes, although in a very perfunctory way compared with JT), was the first 'real' scientific detective, combining vast knowledge of forensic medicine and examination of minutia (i.e., rat hairs, dust particles, etc.) with great erudition and dignity.


These books were dry in style, fascinating in detail, and all pretty much according to a formula - a young lawyer or doctor or other colleague (such as the Watsonian Jervis and Anstey) gets involved in some mysterious circumstances, calls on his old tutor JT, who hears out the tale with great urbanity and politeness, over port and cigars, and spots some hidden element about which he is 'close as an oyster', involves his ingenious assistant the 'crinkly faced' Polton in devising a scientific investigation, then makes all clear at the end, usually in a dramatic courtroom testimony.


Dry as these stories sound, they are still fascinatingly readable, especially when delving into some obscure topic such as pond fauna, archeological anthropology, Egyptology, what have you. The characters are all convincing, often sympathetic even when they are villains, with at least one Dickensian eccentric in each book, although there is very little dramatic action apart from the mystification, the unravelling of the investigation, and an occasional surprise climax. Once one gets used to Freeman, it is usually easy to figure out who the culprit is, although not how he will be caught; in fact RAF pioneered the so - called 'inverted' detective story, where part one of the narrative describes the commission of the crime, including the identity of the felon, and part two is Thorndyke's investigation. This method of detective story exposition has been used effectively in many novels and short stories (Vickers, Berkeley, etc.), although it is not especially what one wants in a mystery novel.


Best Freeman examples: The Stoneware Monkey, Mr Pottermack's Oversight, The D'Arblay Mystery, As a Thief in the Night, and The Penrose Mystery - see also his collection containing inverted mystery short stories, The Singing Bone. The Red Thumb Mark is an early (1907) essay in the new art of identification by fingerprints, and should be noted for that, although the subject is now well beyond cliché. On the whole, The Penrose Mystery is this reviewer's favorite, having all the best elements of a Thorndyke mystery.


The Stoneware Monkey has some very funny (if misguided) scenes about 'modern art', which makes this a second favorite. Dr Thorndyke's expertise in the matter of the jeweller/goldsmith's art, Lemel and Floorsweep The New Jersey Sphinx, inspired a Grobius web page, which really has nothing to do with detective stories, about Jargon Recycling. When one wants pure escapism from the tribulations of the 21st Century, a Freeman novel (or a Doyle or Fleming, depending on one's mood) is a fine choice. RAF himself actually made the monkey statue that he used on the frontispiece (and Dover book cover), and I think it looks fine, though not for one's top shelf. I wonder who has that thing now and whether it would be valuable if you could offer it for sale at a Mystery Convention. Whoever owns it, take it to Antiques Road Show!


I would write a whole web page about this author except that I have huge gaps in my collection of Freeman mysteries, so couldn't treat the subject comprehensively. Here is a summary of Thorndyke's methodology in his own words (from The Penrose Mystery): “Thorndyke smiled indulgently. 'We mustn't expect too much, Jervis,' said he; 'in fact we have no reason to expect anything. We are just looking over this jetsam as a matter of routine to note any facts that it may seem to suggest, without regard to their apparent relevancy or irrelevancy to our inquiry. You cannot judge the relevancy of an isolated fact. Experience has taught me, and must have taught you, that the most trivial, commonplace and seemingly irrelevant facts have a way of suddenly assuming a crucial importance by connecting, explaining or filling in the detail of later discoveries.'“


Wyatt James


Mike Grost on R Austin Freeman


Three of R.Austin Freeman's prewar Dr. Thorndyke detective novels are related in both style and content; the fourth, The Red Thumb Mark, is distinctly different. Freeman apparently created Dr. Thorndyke in the novella, "31 New Inn", written around 1905; this story was not published till 1911. The Red Thumb Mark followed in 1907; The Eye of Osiris in 1911, followed by an expansion of the earlier novella to novel length as The Mystery of 31 New Inn in 1912. Finally, we had A Silent Witness (1914), at which point Freeman's literary creativity seems to have been interrupted by World War I, something very common in authors of his day (e.g., G.K. Chesterton, E.M. Forster had similar gaps.)


"31 New Inn" is a good story. In it, Dr. Thorndyke has his full personality, but he does not seem to have his little green case full of scientific detection aids. He seems to be a detective, and a good one, but not yet a full scientific detective. "31 New Inn" does have Freeman's full plotting technique, of the sort that will reappear in The Eye of Osiris and A Silent Witness. There is the young doctor narrator of the story, who is involved in a complex adventure, largely independent at first of Dr. Thorndyke. There is the complex puzzle plot, well constructed along Freeman's patented lines of the "breakdown of identity". (This technique is discussed in depth on the article on realist school fiction, which is designed as a companion piece to the present work.) There is the well characterized Thorndyke, coming to the young doctor's aid and solving the mystery. Freeman seems to have used "31 New Inn" as a model for what a detective story should be like, some years later, when he wrote his masterpiece, The Eye of Osiris. If I were to compare the two stories, I would note that the plot of Osiris is even trickier and cleverer than "New Inn". This judgment might be related to the fact that I guessed "New Inn"'s plot - it seems ingenious but easy to solve - whereas Osiris had me completely baffled nearly till the end.


Freeman's next novel, A Silent Witness, also followed the same basic mold as the other two. Nothing works as well in this book, and much of the novel is a long meandering mess that never seems to come to any coherent point. Still, many parts of this book are excellent, and I am glad I read it. In addition to some very good plot ideas, Freeman's descriptive writing is excellent, especially in the opening chapters where the hero tramps over Hampstead Heath - I would not have missed these scenes for anything.


"31 New Inn" begins with a young doctor being taken on a mysterious journey in London, and being asked to see a patient. Only after this non-Thorndyke prologue does Thorndyke become involved in the action. Freeman will repeat this construction in several subsequent works. This plot pattern probably derives from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Greek Interpreter" (1893) in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, the classic story that introduced Sherlock's brother Mycroft. In Doyle's story, the young interpreter of the title is taken on a similar journey. Doyle's tale is also notable for the prominent part played by Dr. Watson, in his role as a physician. Medical matters will be similarly central in Freeman's works. Commentators have often pointed out the similarities between Holmes and Thorndyke, both being London-based consulting detectives of a scientific bent. Both men are symbols of Reason.


R. Austin Freeman's masterpiece The Eye of Osiris, published in 1911, but perhaps written earlier, seems paradigmatic of the Golden Age detective novel. This seems somewhat startling, because most historians echo Howard Haycraft in assigning a pioneering role to the development of the Golden Age to E.C. Bentley's Trent's Last Case, published in 1913, but apparently written during 1910-1911. Freeman's book has a puzzle plot, well constructed, is set among the English upper middle classes, and while perhaps a bit more earnest in its love story than most Golden Age books, largely lacks the melodrama allegedly found in many earlier mystery novels, being written in a naturalistic style.


Everyone agrees that Freeman's The Singing Bone, collected in book form in 1912, founded the inverted detective story, a major genre in England during the period of the Golden Age (1920-1945). One wonders if Freeman's Thorndyke detective stories had a similar influence on the concept of "The Detective Novel" prevalent during this period. Freeman published four novels and two short story collections about Dr. Thorndyke during 1907-1914, a period usually described as being dominated by the short story. These novels are strategically positioned to be exactly in the right era as early detective novels in the Golden Age style. I have no idea if Freeman created this genre, but The Eye of Osiris is certainly a prominent early example of it, alongside Bentley's novel.


Freeman is often categorized as a "scientific" detective. This is certainly true, but this does not mean his works might not fall into other categories as well.


It is often said that Freeman's writings do not "play fair" with readers, because readers do not have Thorndyke's scientific expertise, and hence do not have the ability to anticipate his deductions and solve the mystery. This assertion is abundantly true of The Singing Bone. But it is not true of The Eye of Osiris. In that novel, the mystery is a traditional puzzle plot, and can be solved fairly by the reader. In fact, I eventually solved much, but by no means all, of Freeman's puzzle, shortly before Thorndyke revealed his solution.


Thorndyke is more interested in science than technology, while the exact opposite seems to be true of most American scientific detectives of that era, such as the heroes of Arthur B. Reeve, McHarg & Balmer, Cleveland Moffett, etc. Thorndyke has tremendous knowledge of medicine, botany, criminology, farming, etc., that he applies to solving his cases. Knowing is Thorndyke's principal paradigm. By contrast, the Americans seem interested in the high tech future that is to come, with its numerous extraordinary inventions. Sam Moskowitz has rightly linked these American writers with the genre of science fiction, and its concern with the technology of the future. The only technology that really interests Thorndyke, aside from laboratory microscopy, is photography. Freeman's characters actually have an antiquarian approach to life, regretting social change and the tearing down of old buildings and old ways of life. They are interested in English history and Egyptology, and are far from interested in any high tech future.


If knowing is the essence of science, and making the essence of technology, Freeman definitely expresses the scientific world view.


Freeman's works seem extraordinarily evocative of the biological world around us. The green world, especially in its microscopic manifestations, comes gloriously alive and present in Freeman's stories, especially The Singing Bone.


Freeman's book also seems anticipatory of many individual writers. Techniques in of The Eye of Osiris will pop up again in Golden Age books. Some examples:


Dorothy L Sayers. The social setting of the novel, among scholarly but financially pinched middle class professionals, seems exactly the milieu of many of Sayers' characters (and Sayers herself). So is the prominence and respect given to woman intellectuals and scholars. Freeman's storytelling technique seems similar to Sayers as well. There is a full novel of character going on in the foreground, while the mystery events seem to erupt into this "literary" novel from the background. Reading it one has to wonder if Freeman was Sayers' principal literary model for the detective story.


Intellectuality. Both Thorndyke and the other characters are remarkably intellectual. This seems directly anticipatory of the intellectualism in Sayers and SS Van Dine. In these later writers intellectuality centers on literature and art, respectively, and not on science and archeology, as in Freeman, but the basic concept of intellectualism remains. The many cultural and historical asides of Ellery Queen and John Dickson Carr also seem to have a potential model here. Once again, the simple characterization of Thorndyke as a scientific detective tends to disguise what he has in common with later writers. Have Thorndyke stop talking about medicine, and start talking about literature or history, and you have a novel very similar to Sayers et al.


Deduction. Freeman puts great emphasis here on Thorndyke's use of deduction and logical reasoning to derive his solutions. These deductions seem anticipatory of Ellery Queen. Thorndyke's summing up of the case in the penultimate chapter is full of the sort of long strings of logical deduction that one associates with Ellery Queen. (Deduction is also important in the works of Ronald Knox, and one might suspect that Freeman is a role model for Knox as well.)


John Dickson Carr. The hero-narrator of The Eye of Osiris is a decent, nice young man, trying to help the heroine out of difficulties, and marry her. He is aided by the fatherly Dr. Thorndyke, the older, wise man who actually solves the mystery. This is exactly the dramatis personae of many Carr novels, with the nice, masculine young hero - point of view character, his girl friend and love interest, aided by the fatherly detective Dr. Fell. In both Freeman and Carr, the hero is an admirable, highly intelligent young man, but not as extraordinary as the Great Detective who solves the mystery.


"A Fisher of Men", "The Green Check Jacket" and "The Naturalist at Law" are three tales in Freeman's 1920's collections that have a similar construction. Thorndyke investigates a mysterious attack or murder, concentrating on physical clues or traces at the crime scene, which he interprets using his scientific expertise. Biological evidence causes Thorndyke to move the investigation to a second locality. This second location is rich in landscape architecture, a place full of interesting features. Thorndyke does more investigation of physical clues at this second scene, allowing him to reconstruct the crime. The stories are not fair play. The reader mainly can do little more than sit back and watch as Thorndyke follows his trail. The biological reasons for the move to the second locality are especially impossible for the reader to anticipate. Yet they are also the subject of rich interest , featuring some of Freeman's most poetic looks at the natural world. The biology also recalls "A Message From the Deep Sea", and Freeman's inverted tale, "A Wastrel's Romance". The complex settings of the second part of each story are also full of imaginative interest, and can approach the surreal in their originality and richness of detail. "A Fisher of Men" and "The Green Check Jacket" also have a similar comic interlude in the middle of the tales, just before Thorndyke moves to the second locality. The interlude shows Thorndyke purchasing equipment for his upcoming expedition to the second locale, mystifying his assistant (and the reader) with the strange articles he is purchasing. These purchases too have a surreal feel, with bizarre items whose utility is only gradually revealed in the final stages of the investigation. The lack of fair play is these tales' greatest limiting factor. One hardly wishes such lack of fair play to become a standard in detective fiction. Yet these tales' absorbing storytelling makes them into successes. The last of the three, "The Naturalist at Law", is especially magical in its unfolding.


As August Derleth has pointed out, in "Mr. Ponting's Alibi", the solution of the mystery is evident to the reader almost at once. The interest of the tale is in watching Thorndyke solve the mystery. In this, the story is almost an inverted tale. "Mr. Ponting's Alibi" also resembles such early Freeman tales as "The Old Lag" and "A Message From the Deep Sea", in that it consists of an urban murder which Thorndyke tracks by means of biological clues at the crime scene. Such stories have a real appeal to the Freeman fan. Everything in "Mr. Ponting's Alibi" seems to roll out like a piece of music.


"Pandora's Box" is more of a pure puzzle plot mystery, than are many of Freeman's 1920's short stories. The tale has some mild - but good - impossible crime aspects. The story, with its dark forces at work surrounding the life of the hero, anticipates some of Freeman's final novels. As in these late books, there is also a sense of limited knowledge about the suspects in the tale, a mysteriousness that takes considerable detective skill to push back. "Rex v. Burnaby" also has elements of the impossible crime. Along with "Phyllis Annesley's Peril", these are the best of the genuine puzzle plot, fair play mystery short tales of the 1920's.


"The Contents of a Mare's Nest" is a 1920's Freeman story that seems to recapitulate in just 20 pages plots and themes from Freeman's early trilogy of novels. The story has macabre elements, but it also develops a tone of bizarre comedy, in its breathless plunge though ideas it took Freeman three novels to develop. Even this little piece includes no less than three separate crime cases. Thorndyke and his confreres have to thread an elaborate maze. It is hard to take the story seriously, but it is an entertainingly absurd summary of Freemaniana.


"The New Jersey Sphinx" is another 1920's short work with some similarity to the themes of the trilogy. It too features numerous complications, which make for pleasant storytelling.


Freeman's Inverted Short Stories


My least favorite of the stories in The Singing Bone, "A Case of Premeditation", similarly deals with the issue of faking trails to mislead bloodhounds: here Freeman also goes on and on without much else in the way of plot, characters, or background to support his thesis. Perversely, I enjoyed "The Old Lag" (1909), a story in The Singing Bone dealing once again with fingerprint faking. Here it is enmeshed into an interesting, and relatively complex tale. My favorite tale in The Singing Bone is "A Wastrel's Romance". This gentle tale, with its fascinating scientific deductions and vistas, seems to be some people's least favorite of these stories, being rejected by Freeman's early magazine editors.


Freeman was the inventor of the inverted detective story, in which we first see the criminal commit the crime, then watch the detective solve the case. Four of the stories collected in The Singing Bone (1912) are in the inverted form, all of them except the earliest chronologically, "The Old Lag" (1909).


In 1918 Freeman collected another batch of inverted short stories. The tales were shorter than those in The Singing Bone, and the series apparently only lasted for two stories. The first tale, "Percival Bland's Proxy" (1913), is grotesque and uninspired. Its successor, "The Missing Mortgagee" (1914) has charm. It takes place at the seaside resort of Margate, and displays the tendency of writers as they get older to set more of their works at holiday resorts. Freeman describes the seashore with his usual vivid detail. In fact, everything in the story is clearly and vividly imagined. The use of nature description in the tale links it to "A Wastrel's Romance". So does his sympathetic protagonist - as in "Wastrel", he does not commit a murder, unlike most of the central figures of Freeman's inverted stories. The safe at the end of the story looks forward to "The Puzzle Lock", one of his best 1920's tales.


Freeman's last five novels show a new commitment to puzzle plot mystery fiction. They also have a different, darker point of view and tone, from much of Freeman's earlier writing. Also, issues of class make a deeper impact on Freeman's writing, with Thorndyke's working class lab assistant Polton playing an increasing role in the novels.

Freeman on his character, Dr. Thorndyke:


MY subject is Dr. John Thorndyke, the hero or central character of most of my detective stories. So I'll give you a short account of his real origin; of the way in which he did in fact come into existence.


To discover the origin of John Thorndyke I have to reach back into the past for at least fifty years, to the time when I was a medical student preparing for my final examination. For reasons which I need not go into I gave rather special attention to the legal aspects of medicine and the medical aspects of law. And as I read my text-books, and especially the illustrative cases, I was profoundly impressed by their dramatic quality. Medical jurisprudence deals with the human body in its relation to all kinds of legal problems. Thus its subject matter includes all sorts of crime against the person and all sorts of violent death and bodily injury: hanging, drowning, poisons and their effects, problems of suicide and homicide, of personal identity and survivorship, and a host of other problems of the highest dramatic possibilities, though not always quite presentable for the purposes of fiction. And the reported cases which were given in illustration were often crime stories of the most thrilling interest. Cases of disputed identity such as the Tichbourne Case, famous poisoning cases such as the Rugeley Case and that of Madeline Smith, cases of mysterious disappearance or the detection of long-forgotten crimes such as that of Eugene Aram; all these, described and analysed with strict scientific accuracy, formed the matter of Medical Jurisprudence which thrilled me as I read and made an indelible impression.


But it produced no immediate results. I had to pass my examinations and get my diploma, and then look out for the means of earning my living. So all this curious lore was put away for the time being in the pigeon-holes of my mind—which Dr. Freud would call the Unconscious—not forgotten, but ready to come to the surface when the need for it should arise. And there it reposed for some twenty years, until failing health compelled me to abandon medical practice and take to literature as a profession.


It was then that my old studies recurred to my mind. A fellow doctor, Conan Doyle, had made a brilliant and well-deserved success by the creation of the immortal Sherlock Holmes. Considering that achievement, I asked myself whether it might not be possible to devise a detective story of a slightly different kind; one based on the science of Medical Jurisprudence, in which, by the sacrifice of a certain amount of dramatic effect, one could keep entirely within the facts of real life, with nothing fictitious excepting the persons and the events. I came to the conclusion that it was, and began to turn the idea over in my mind.


But I think that the influence which finally determined the character of my detective stories, and incidentally the character of John Thorndyke, operated when I was working at the Westminster Ophthalmic Hospital. There I used to take the patients into the dark room, examine their eyes with the ophthalmoscope, estimate the errors of refraction, and construct an experimental pair of spectacles to correct those errors. When a perfect correction had been arrived at, the formula for it was embodied in a prescription which was sent to the optician who made the permanent spectacles.


Now when I was writing those prescriptions it was borne in on me that in many cases, especially the more complex, the formula for the spectacles, and consequently the spectacles themselves, furnished an infallible record of personal identity. If, for instance, such a pair of spectacles should have been found in a railway carriage, and the maker of those spectacles could be found, there would be practically conclusive evidence that a particular person had travelled by that train. About that time I drafted out a story based on a pair of spectacles, which was published some years later under the title of The Mystery of 31 New Inn, and the construction of that story determined, as I have said, not only the general character of my future work but of the hero around whom the plots were to be woven. But that story remained for some years in cold storage. My first published detective novel was The Red Thumb-mark, and in that book we may consider that John Thorndyke was born. And in passing on to describe him I may as well explain how and why he came to be the kind of person that he is.


I may begin by saying that he was not modelled after any real person. He was deliberately created to play a certain part, and the idea that was in my mind was that he should be such a person as would be likely and suitable to occupy such a position in real life. As he was to be a medico-legal expert, he had to be a doctor and a fully trained lawyer. On the physical side I endowed him with every kind of natural advantage. He is exceptionally tall, strong, and athletic because those qualities are useful in his vocation. For the same reason he has acute eyesight and hearing and considerable general manual skill, as every doctor ought to have. In appearance he is handsome and of an imposing presence, with a symmetrical face of the classical type and a Grecian nose. And here I may remark that his distinguished appearance is not merely a concession to my personal taste but is also a protest against the monsters of ugliness whom some detective writers have evolved. These are quite opposed to natural truth. In real life a first-class man of any kind usually tends to be a good-looking man.


Mentally, Thorndyke is quite normal. He has no gifts of intuition or other supernormal mental qualities. He is just a highly intellectual man of great and varied knowledge with exceptionally acute reasoning powers and endowed with that invaluable asset, a scientific imagination (by a scientific imagination I mean that special faculty which marks the born investigator; the capacity to perceive the essential nature of a problem before the detailed evidence comes into sight). But he arrives at his conclusions by ordinary reasoning, which the reader can follow when he has been supplied with the facts; though the intricacy of the train of reasoning may at times call for an exposition at the end of the investigation.


Thorndyke has no eccentricities or oddities which might detract from the dignity of an eminent professional man, unless one excepts an unnatural liking for Trichinopoly cheroots. In manner he is quiet, reserved and self-contained, and rather markedly secretive, but of a kindly nature, though not sentimental, and addicted to occasional touches of dry humour. That is how Thorndyke appears to me.


As to his age. When he made his first bow to the reading public from the doorway of Number 4 King's Bench Walk he was between thirty-five and forty. As that was thirty years ago, he should now be over sixty-five. But he isn't. If I have to let him "grow old along with me" I need not saddle him with the infirmities of age, and I can (in his case) put the brake on the passing years. Probably he is not more than fifty after all!


Now a few words as to how Thorndyke goes to work. His methods are rather different from those of the detectives of the Sherlock Holmes school. They are more technical and more specialized. He is an investigator of crime but he is not a detective. The technique of Scotland Yard would be neither suitable nor possible to him. He is a medico-legal expert, and his methods are those of medico-legal science. In the investigation of a crime there are two entirely different methods of approach. One consists in the careful and laborious examination of a vast mass of small and commonplace detail: inquiring into the movements of suspected and other persons; interrogating witnesses and checking their statements particularly as to times and places; tracing missing persons, and so forth—the aim being to accumulate a great body of circumstantial evidence which will ultimately disclose the solution of the problem. It is an admirable method, as the success of our police proves, and it is used with brilliant effect by at least one of our contemporary detective writers. But it is essentially a police method.


The other method consists in the search for some fact of high evidential value which can be demonstrated by physical methods and which constitutes conclusive proof of some important point. This method also is used by the police in suitable cases. Finger-prints are examples of this kind of evidence, and another instance is furnished by the Gutteridge murder. Here the microscopical examination of a cartridge-case proved conclusively that the murder had been committed with a particular revolver; a fact which incriminated the owner of that revolver and led to his conviction.


This is Thorndyke's procedure. It consists in the interrogation of things rather than persons; of the ascertainment of physical facts which can be made visible to eyes other than his own. And the facts which he seeks tend to be those which are apparent only to the trained eye of the medical practitioner.


I feel that I ought to say a few words about Thorndyke's two satellites, Jervis and Polton. As to the former, he is just the traditional narrator proper to this type of story. Some of my readers have complained that Dr. Jervis is rather slow in the uptake. But that is precisely his function. He is the expert misunderstander. His job is to observe and record all the facts, and to fail completely to perceive their significance. Thereby he gives the reader all the necessary information, and he affords Thorndyke the opportunity to expound its bearing on the case.


Polton is in a slightly different category. Although he is not drawn from any real person, he is associated in my mind with two actual individuals. One is a Mr. Pollard, who was the laboratory assistant in the hospital museum when I was a student, and who gave me many a valuable tip in matters of technique, and who, I hope, is still to the good. The other was a watch- and clock-maker of the name of Parsons —familiarly known as Uncle Parsons—who had premises in a basement near the Royal Exchange, and who was a man of boundless ingenuity and technical resource. Both of these I regard as collateral relatives, so to speak, of Nathaniel Polton. But his personality is not like either. His crinkly countenance is strictly his own copyright.


To return to Thorndyke, his rather technical methods have, for the purposes of fiction, advantages and disadvantages. The advantage is that his facts are demonstrably true, and often they are intrinsically interesting. The disadvantage is that they are frequently not matters of common knowledge, so that the reader may fail to recognize them or grasp their significance until they are explained. But this is the case with all classes of fiction. There is no type of character or story that can be made sympathetic and acceptable to every kind of reader. The personal equation affects the reading as well as the writing of a story.



The Red Thumb Mark (1907)

John Thorndyke's Cases aka Dr Thorndyke's Cases (1907)

The Eye of Osiris aka The Vanishing Man (1911)

The Singing Bone aka The Adventures of Dr Thorndyke (1912)

The Mystery of 31, New Inn (1912)

A Silent Witness (1914)

The Uttermost Farthing aka A Savant's Vendetta (1914)

The Exploits of Danby Croker (1916)

The Great Portrait Mystery (1918)

Helen Vardon's Confession (1922)

Dr Thorndyke's Casebook aka The Blue Scarab (1923)

The Cat's Eye (1923)

The Mystery of Angelina Frood (1924)

The Puzzle Lock (1925)

The Shadow of the Wolf (1925)

The D'Arblay Mystery (1926)

The Magic Casket (1927)

The Surprising Experiences of Mr Shuttlebury Cobb (1927)

A Certain Dr Thorndyke (1927)

Flighty Phyllis (1928)

As a Thief in the Night (1928)

Mr Pottermack's Oversight (1930)

Pontifex, Son and Thorndyke (1931)

When Rogues Fall Out aka Dr Thorndyke's Discovery (1933)

Dr Thorndyke Intervenes (1933)

For the Defence: Dr Thorndyke (1934)

The Penrose Mystery (1936)

Felo de Se? aka Death at the Inn (1937)

The Stoneware Monkey (1938)

Mr Polton Explains (1940)

The Jacob Street Mystery aka The Unconscious Witness (1942)


As Clifford Ashdown (with JJ Pitcairn)**

The Adventures of Romney Pringle (1902)

The Further Adventures of Romney Pringle (1969)

From a Surgeon's Diary (1975)


Uncollected Stories

  • The Sign of the Ram (1911)
  • The Mystery of Hoo Marsh (1917)
  • The Mystery of the Seven Banana Skins (1933)



The Art of the Detective Story


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