Yes, let’s make this book
look like a dark study in
Human Evil! SYMBOLISM!!!
Enter Dr. Thorndyke
The inanimate things around us have each of them a song to sing to us if we are but ready with attentive ears.
— Dr. John Thorndyke, “The Echo of a Mutiny” (collected in The Signing Bone)
And thus we have returned to R. Austin Freeman. I launched this series of reviews last week with Freeman’s own The Eye of Osiris, devoted to various Crime Kings: male authors who wrote in the Golden Age of Detective Fiction and towards whom time has been extremely unkind. Freeman is an excellent case in point. At one point in time, he was a highly respected author, even earning praise from Raymond Chandler (no mean feat, that). Flash forward to the publication of Bloody Murder in 1972, and what does Julian Symons write about Freeman? “Reading a Freeman story is very much like chewing on dry straw.” And he hasn’t fared much better today, which just puzzles me. My confusion increased after reading The Singing Bone, a collection of short stories originally published in 1911, in which Freeman invented what is known as the “inverted detective story”—a technique that the television show Columbo excelled at. I was expecting an interesting experiment but not much more. But once again, Freeman surprised me and smashed the ball out of the park.
As I’ve mentioned, this is a short story collection, consisting of five tales. The first four are inverted detective stories—the final one is a more conventional one. Freeman felt the need to comment on this in his preface: “The peculiar construction of the first four stories … will probably strike both reader and critic and seem to call for some explanation, which I accordingly proceed to supply.” Each of these stories, as it turns out, is very entertaining and interesting, and I will proceed to comment on each below.
The Case of Oscar Brodski
Oscar Brodski, a Polish man who was born in Warsaw, makes the mistake of travelling alone with a stash of rough diamonds he intends to have cut in Amsterdam. He makes an even bigger mistake when he get lost and comes to the house of Silas Hickler for help. Hickler is a criminal, and as it turns out, the temptation of the diamonds is too much for him—he kills Brodski and proceeds to cover up his crime. But, he didn’t count on the presence of Dr. John Thorndyke. Several circumstances add up to point out the murderer’s guilt, but you’re on the detective’s side. Hickler is a man of no perceivable conscience—he only hesitates with the murder because he knows that few can get away with it and the prospect of hanging is great. He doesn’t struggle with his conscience, just with the last bit of reason he possesses—and once he leaves that behind, he becomes a marked man. This is one case where you feel justice has to be carried out. However, it is precisely for this reason that this is my least favourite story. Hickler is a monster, and the interest lies not in whether or not he will escape justice, but in seeing how Dr. Thorndyke brilliantly tracks him down. Once again, Thorndyke’s logic is impeccable. He deals with every reasonable theory and proves his case step by step—and even when the amount of evidence is high enough to make little room for doubt, he allows for the possibility that he could be wrong.
A Case of Premeditation
Mr. Pratt was at one time a warder in a prison, and he uses this knowledge to his advantage. Mr. Rufus Pembury is now a respectable citizen, but at one time in his life, he found himself in jail, the same one Mr. Pratt worked in. He broke free and never again reverted to crime… until Mr. Pratt decides to turn blackmailer. It immediately becomes obvious to Pembury that Pratt must be eliminated, and he sets about doing so ingeniously.
I found this story a major improvement on The Case of Oscar Brodski. The murderer’s character is far more interesting and sympathetic—a blackmailer, after all, is a very unpleasant person to deal with. If you removed the first half of the story, it would make a fine mystery. The killer’s plot is a good one, and Dr. Thorndyke lays to rest the old superstition about bloodhounds being able to sniff out the guilty party in a crime. Yet the first half only adds to the story’s interest
The Echo of a Mutiny
This is my very favourite story in this collection, because there is a far bigger element of suspense involved. Though this is an inverted murder mystery, you have no idea who will be the victim and who will be the murderer. You can only watch helplessly as events unfold— a sailor named Brown commandeers a sailboat to a lighthouse, ready to relieve one of the men there. Unfortunately, the same fellow, who has broken his leg, takes a ride in another boat that will pass by his home town. This leaves a sailor named Jeffreys, who awaits the arrival of the man who will be confined to the island on which the lighthouse is built for a month with him. When Brown finally arrives, the eyes of the two sailors meet and they recognize each other as accomplices in a mutiny years ago. Since then, they have both adopted the aliases I use for them. Brown betrayed Jeffreys to the law to save himself, and Jeffreys has been on the run since then. The atmosphere in the lighthouse is strained, and soon, one of the men is killed by the other. The survivor then goes about trying to ensure that he will not be blamed.
This story is marvellous. Both murderer and victim are interesting, and their confrontation is just brilliant. The emotional storm that goes through the lighthouse is genuinely suspenseful and the ultimate outcome is an unfortunate one which could’ve been prevented if not for a series of idiotic miscommunications that led to their meeting each other.
And the way Dr. Thorndyke finds the truth is brilliant. Every little fact turns out to be important, right down to a small and seemingly irrelevant one that is initially mocked by a stander-by, Captain Grumpass. I have only one minor complaint—Jeffreys is left alone for a considerable time, which is when he reflects on his past and we learn of the mutiny he took part in. It’s nicely done, but how much more effective would it have been to have those thoughts race through his head when he lays his eyes on the newcomer for the first time?
A Wastrel’s Romance
This is another fine inverted detective story, in which the murderer is a sneak thief who commits his crime on an impulse and immediately regrets it, panicking and fleeing the crime scene, believing to have killed a woman he loved. But the woman is not dead, though the distraught man failed to notice, and she wants to find out who attacked her so that the man may be punished. As the net closes in and Thorndyke gets closer to the truth, you anticipate the scene where the victim will meet her attacker—the irony is present throughout, but the final scene where they meet is just priceless, and the concluding statement of the story is one of the most perfect endings to a mystery I’ve ever read. This may have been my favourite story, but the problem I noticed in The Echo of a Mutiny is more ingrained and pronounced in here. I think it would’ve been so much more effective for the murderer to not realize who he was attacking until the struggle was over, and then have the backstory flash through his mind. But we are given a few scenes with these reflections prior to the attack, which makes it seem quite out of character, although it loses none of its ironic tragedy.
The Old Lag
The final story in this collection is unfortunately not as interesting as the inverted murder tales that came before. First, Freeman gives an extremely condensed version of his book The Red Thumb Mark which is well worth reading. The book itself, I’ve been told, feels like a padded out short story. So it’s interesting to read a short story version, where Dr. Thorndyke proves the fallacy of fingerprint evidence, at a time when people thought them to be infallible. (This method won’t work anymore, though—I won’t spoil what it is!) The second half of the story is a fairly run-of-the-mill murder case which doesn’t quite match the level of the inverted mysteries. While it’s still interesting and the logic is perfect as usual, it lacks a certain… je ne sais quoi.
And that’s The Singing Bone. How does it hold up? Extremely well! The stories are all interesting and the characters are rather well-done. Each story, including the final one, is split into two halves. The first half is told from the murderer’s point of view and the second half is told by Dr. Jervis, Thorndyke’s assistant. (The last story has the same two-half structure but the contents of those halves are different.) The murderers are usually interesting characters, and the stories are written really well, with just a dash of humour at precisely the right spots. Dry straw, you say, Mr. Symons? I can only quote the wisdom of Nero Wolfe: “Pfui!”
Dr. Thorndyke is a marvellous creation. Freeman doesn’t concern himself with giving his detective as many eccentricities as possible. Thorndyke’s hobbies don’t include knitting and he doesn’t have a fixation for his moustache. He is simply an intelligent and observant man who knows how to use his remarkable mind to make a solid deduction. His logic is simply perfect, and he always allows for the possibility that he may have miscalculated somewhere. And the way he goes about solving his crimes is just fascinating to watch. Indeed, Thorndyke (and through him, Freeman) made some pretty shrewd observations on forensic science and its future possibilities. The Eye of Osiris featured X-ray photography, for instance! Here, Dr. Thorndyke disproves the myth that bloodhounds will track a killer with the same ease as proving fingerprint evidence fallible. It makes me wish R. Austin Freeman were still around—just think of what havoc he could wreak with DNA evidence!
So why has time been so unkind to R. Austin Freeman? He possessed creativity, ingenuity, a genuine gift for writing, and the logic of his tales is solid. In short, he possessed all the ingredients necessary for a timeless mystery author, yet he apparently was omitted from P. D. James’ “Talking About Detective Fiction”. A serious injustice is being done to this man’s work!