Wednesday, July 27, 2011

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

Yes, let’s make this book
look like a dark study in
Human Evil! SYMBOLISM!!!
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!

10 comments:

  1. Wow, I couldn't have said it better myself. I love this collection. Chandler's comment that Freeman;s writing isn't dull, just old-fashioned, is, I think a keen one. At bottom, I think Symons had trouble with all the physical science. Symons tends to be a lot more interested in sex and psychology.

    You should quite like the other Freeman stories (most are not inverted).

    John Street and Connington are to some extent Freeman's heirs, but none of them get much attention today compared to the Crime Queens, of course. So P. D. James feels free to criticize the Golden Age writers for having no understanding of forensic science--she clearly has never read Freeman!

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  2. Thanks for commenting, Curt! I think you're right about both Chandler and Symons. I think I'll like Freeman's other tales as well. After all, I am studying science in university right now, and it interests me, particularly chemistry. To have Thorndyke go through his explanations and bringing up science left and right is, in a word, fascinating.

    It's a real shame that I can only find Connington's stuff online. Nothing against the university, but I can't download it into any file format and I don't have the time, patience, or physical capability to sit in front of a computer screen for the entire day and read a book that way.

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  3. I have all these stories and a whole lot more in a collection called Dr Thorndyke, his famous cases described by R. Austin Freeman. Even though I know whodunnit, I keep going back and rereading them every now and then. One of my favourite GAD authors.

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  4. Great review, Patrick, and your temping me to put down my beloved American mystery writers for a while to pick up one of these neglected, British Kings of Crime. I have several of their books residing on the shelves (Freeman, Crofts, Connington, etc). Argh, as if picking between them wasn't already difficult enough! :/

    By the way, have you finally started watching Columbo?

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  5. @Carola
    I picked up a copy of that book and read through the introductory material by Freeman. Great stuff! :)

    @TomCat
    Thanks for the kind words, though I warn you that this series is going to continue until I leave (less than two weeks away now). If you think things are bad now, I have a big list of hardboiled authors to go into on my return, just to even things up a bit for their school. ;)

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  6. Hey, you're evading the Columbo question. Don't make me go Mike Hammer on you, Patrick! I expect an episode review before you go on holiday! ;)

    Hardboiled writers, eh? If you're going to read Ross MacDonald, I highly recommend The Far Side of Dollar. I read three of his books a few years ago, when I was also sampling Chandler and Hammett, but that was the only one I really liked. Heck, it even made my top 100 which shows how much I enjoyed it.

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  7. I have a lovely old hardback collection of Freeman's short stories, but I've not read it. I'll have to put that to rights quite soon.

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  8. @TomCat
    I think you misunderstand me. I've seen Columbo, several episodes, in fact, but I'm not intimately familiar with it. And though I tried writing an episode review several times, none of my words seemed to do any justice to the late Peter Falk.

    Yes, hardboiled authors. I went to the same high school as Ross Macdonald. I don't know what it was like when he was there, but boy did I hate it.

    @Sextonblake
    Glad to hear it! :) I really don't think you'll regret making an acquaintance of Freeman.

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  9. Freeman is sadly underrated. I find the dual studies of the inadequacies of the legal system and the beginnings of forensic investigation fascinating. I am very much afraid that Dr. Thorndyke won't get a critical revision until British television starts doing a mystery series based on the stories, thereby getting people talking about him again. Right now only two stories have been adapted for "The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes."

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  10. Just started reading Singing Bone. Freeman is a competent writer, with flashes of wit, but I can't figure out whether or not he's just totally kidding here or what: "Thorndyke stepped over to the door and admitted a police inspector in uniform, and I stood up, and, presenting my dorsal aspect to the fire, prepared to combine bodily comfort with attention to business." Presenting my dorsal aspect to the fire?! I mean, even if that's a joke, it's still pretty weak.

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