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The Mystery of 31, New Inn

Page history last edited by PBworks 15 years ago

Freeman, R Austin - The Mystery of 31, New Inn (1912)

 

Thorndyke at His Best and Worst by Wyatt James

 

Freeman is noted for pioneering 'scientific' detection, that is, forensic examination of the clues, and is really superb in doing that, although many readers complain that Thorndyke's encylopedic knowledge in all areas ranging from biology to archeology does not 'play fair' because the information is not known generally and hence does not lend itself to deduction on the reader's part. This is not quite fair as a criticism, since Freeman at least lets you know that something is afoot when Dr. T. starts sniffing around on some obscure trail, so you can rightly suspect that the solution depends on identification of some local form of pond life or whatever - you don't really have to know what. His formula for presenting a mystery is consistent, and as with Sherlock Holmes adds interest for the aficionado of the author - you know what to expect: a first - person narrative by a young lawyer or doctor (a sort of smart Watson) who has some association with Thorndyke, a damsel in distress (often) with whom the narrator falls in love, a bizarre opening to the case involving some mysterious events such as a murder, a theft, or something inexplicable involving an eccentric character. Thorndyke then listens to the narration and picks on some obscure clue, usually enlisting the aid of his manservant/lab - assistant Polton ('crinkly like a walnut') who devises strange and ingenious apparatuses for analyzing data. Expect something esoteric in the solution, involving deductions that Thorndyke is always cagily unrevealing about, usually with the excuse that 'suspicion is not proven fact and should not be spoken about until the facts are interpreted properly.'

 

(The House of Stratus, who published the edition I just read, has an annoying habit of omitting copyright dates, possibly because the book is already in the public domain. By internal evidence, this book came out soon after The Red Thumb Mark, a very early Thorndyke, and is pre - WWI. According to E.F. Bleiler, 31 New Inn was serialized first, then later revised to add references to the latter.) Of the Dr. Thorndyke mysteries, these do no measure up to the classics, such as The Eye of Osiris, The Stoneware Monkey, Mr Pottermack's Oversight, or The Penrose Mystery, but they are interesting in their own right.

 

“31 New Inn” shows Thorndyke at his most typical, and starts out with an intriguing opening, when a young locum is called out to visit a patient and is taken there by secret in a closed carriage; the patient is obviously suffering from opium poisoning, but the man who called Dr. Jervis in insists it must be sleeping sickness. Why they called in a doctor in the first place is not really explained, if they were poisoning the poor chap - but maybe they didn't want him to die right away. Well, this would be suspicious even to the dumbest of Watsons, so Jervis goes to Thorndyke in his apartment in King's Bench Walk and tells him the tale, later clues in the police who say they can do nothing without more evidence of a crime. He uses a simple means of estimating his track in the closed carriage on his next visit, with a compass and clock, with notes as to external sounds - suggested by Thorndyke and very ingenious (in fact, a method actually used by Freeman when he was in Africa) - but does not follow up on it right away, as he should have, but is distracted by an influenza epidemic. Hiatus then for a few weeks, then a new case crops up - which of course connects up with the unsolved mystery.

 

When Jervis's stint as a locum is over, Dr. T. hires him as an apprentice 'medical jurist', a strategem that allows for the detective's irritating habit of saying 'figure it out for yourself', as Jervis is being trained - these lessons being rather fun, and educating to the reader too. As a pure detective story, the novel is rather weak (the author then being a novice), because the two apparently unconnected mysteries - Jervis's odd patient, and a matter of a suspicious will - obviously are connected; both Thorndyke and the reader know this to be the case, but the narrator and other people involved are very obtuse about this. The story's roots as a novelette are apparent in its expanded form, probably a misjudgement on the author's part, since he excels in the short - story form. One of Dr. T.'s recondite clues is that a photograph of a cuneiform tablet is mounted upside - down on a wall. How on earth would anybody know that (in general knowledge)? Still, once you know that fact, it is a perfectly fair clue as to the deductions you can make from it. The crime itself is particularly nasty, and all the more so in that it is presented without all the explicit gore and horror one would find in a modern author. As usual, there are some nicely quotable passages.

 

For example: ( Regarding Mr Weiss and the odd patient) - “The attitude of the suspicious man tends to generate in others the kind of conduct that seems to justify his suspicions.... The inexperienced kitten which approaches us confidingly with arched back and upright tail, soliciting caresses, generally receives the gentle treatment that it expects; whereas the worldly - wise tom - cat, who, in response to friendly advances, scampers away and grins at us suspiciously from the fancied security of an adjacent wall, impels us to accelerate his retreat with a well - directed clod.... Now the proceedings of Mr H Weiss resembled those of the tom - cat aforesaid....” ( A chewing out of his apprentice by Dr. T.) - “You ought not to have carried this (a poisoned sugar cube) loose in your pocket. For legal purposes that would seriously interfere with its value as evidence. Bodies that are suspected of containing poison should be carefully isolated and preserved from contact with anything that might lead to doubt in the analysis. It doesn't matter much to us, as this analysis is only for our own information and we can satisfy ourselves as to the state of your pocket. But bear the rule in mind another time.”

 

There is also a nice set - piece, too long to quote here, where Thorndyke elucidates his methods, starting out 'when I began this branch of practice and had plenty of time on my hands'; he would work out elaborate crimes, thinking as a criminal, then consider the 'case from the standpoint of detection'. “The exercise was invaluable to me. I acquired as much experience from these imaginary cases as I should from real ones, and in addition, I learned a method which is the one I practise to this day.” “Do you mean that you still invent imaginary cases as a mental excercise?” “No; I mean that, when I have a problem of any intricacy, I invent a case which fits the facts and the assumed motives of one of the parties. Then I work at that case until I find whether it leads to elucidation or to some fundamental disagreement. In the latter case I reject it and begin the process over again.” “Doesn't that method sometimes involve a good deal of wasted time and energy?” I asked. “No; because each time that you fail to establish a given case, you exclude a particular explanation of the facts and narrow down the field of inquiry. By repeating the process you are bound, in the end, to arrive at an imaginary case which fits all the facts. Then your imaginary case is the real case and the problem is solved.”

 

When the murderer escapes during a chase (by suicide - often a simple solution in those days when capital punishment and the scandal of a trial was an issue for some authors and readers), Supt. Miller of Scotland Yard has a parting shot at the divisional Inspector Jervis had reported his suspicions to (about which the doctor for whom Jervis was 'locuming' said when he reported the events “They like to have everything pretty well cut and dried before they act. A prosecution is an expensive affair, so they don't care to prosecute unless they are pretty sure of a conviction. If they fail they get hauled over the coals”). Miller says: “I wish Dr Jervis had given the tip to me instead of to that confounded, over - cautious - but there, I mustn't run down my brother officers; and it's easy to be wise after the event.” The ultimate word comes from the stick - in - the - mud lawyer Winwood, who was dubious about Thorndyke's methods: “But I shall enter a caveat, all the same.” This book is as good a place as any to start a Freeman library.

 

But it is as a short - story writer rather than as a novelist, that Freeman really shines. (The novels tend to be padded with extranea.) In particular, he devised what is called the 'inverted detective story', where you are shown the crime in Part I, then Thorndyke's solution in Part II - an interesting, if limited, approach to mystery writing. Freeman actually only wrote a few stories in this vein, mostly collected in “The Singing Bone.” He started out as an Edwardian detective story writer, but reached his peak in what is considered the Golden Age of Detection, in his middle age (but even then, in the 1920s - 1930s, was considered rather old - fashioned, in spite of the praise of Raymond Chandler, who disliked English 'cosies', detective stories that did not take place on Mean Streets). A detective story fan will either love or hate most of his works - it's all a matter of taste.

 

Wyatt James

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