#9: R. Austin Freeman
Freeman’s precise literary style, like his calligraphic handwriting, suggests a dry, painstaking man, more comfortable with microscope and test tube than the ebb and flow of human emotions. In fact, he was a romantic whom women found highly attractive, but his personable manner concealed a streak of ruthlessness.Martin Edwards, The Golden Age of Murder (2015)
I first became aware of R. Austin Freeman because of his significance to the development of the inverted mystery story which he claimed to have invented with his story story The Case of Oscar Brody in his short story collection The Singing Bone. I have suggested before that this is possibly a little misleading as there are a number of earlier stories that have the reader follow a criminal in devising and committing a crime, but Freeman does provide an innovation in showing that a crime writer can maintain interest and suspense in showing the detective piecing together a puzzle whose solution we already know. Later writers in that subgenre like Freeman Wills Crofts and E. & M. A. Radford as well as the TV series Columbo owe a considerable debt to R. Austin Freeman’s approach.
Freeman’s first efforts in the field of mystery fiction were short stories, penned along with fellow medic John James Pitcairn under the pseudonym Clifford Ashdown. These stories followed the roguish conman Romney Pringle who apparently uses his observational, scientific and deductive skills to track down other criminals.
He found his greatest literary success a few years later however with the publication of The Red Thumb Mark, the first of the Dr. Thorndyke stories. These stories are at first glance reminiscent of Doyle’s Holmes adventures, particularly in the way that the sleuth takes a small number of physical clues and uses them to construct elaborate theories or explanations of puzzling situations but there are some important differences.
The first is that the Thorndyke stories feel far less sensationalist with less of a focus on surprising the reader. One of the things that I feel defines Freeman from earlier writers is his dedication to the idea of fair play – being careful to point out the clues that Thorndyke will use and to give the reader time to consider their importance. As a case in point, Freeman includes a note at the start of The Mystery of 31 New Inn to explain that he has tested a key concept used in the novel and can attest to its practicality.
The way Thorndyke acquires and processes that evidence is also somewhat different. While Holmes may talk of methodically eliminating possibilities, there are times where the conclusions that are reached from evidence may feel rather arbitrary. In contrast, Thorndyke carefully assembles facts, conducts tests and assesses how his findings alter the likelihood of his theories being correct. Accordingly his progress can be slower and less dramatic but that is no bad thing for those who enjoy playing at being an armchair detective as it allows the reader additional time to consider the solution.
The other significant difference is that Thorndyke is a considerably warmer character than the often misanthropic Holmes. Freeman’s detective is apparently quite handsome and also quite personable both towards his friends and also those he comes into contact with in his investigations. For Freeman though the point of interest is in the science rather than the character of his sleuth and while I quite enjoy Thorndyke’s company, I read Freeman primarily for his plots.
Martin Edwards’ history of the Detection Club contains a good amount of discussion of Freeman’s background and character with a particular focus on his enthusiasm for eugenics in the period between the wars. One of the things he notes was that Freeman authored a book on the topic, Social Decay and Regeneration, which he felt prouder of than his many mystery novels. While he was not alone in his beliefs, he was certainly in a minority within the Detection Club and Edwards provides a couple of examples from the works of Sayers and Christie skewering those expressing such views.
The work I selected to read for this project was one of Freeman’s earlier Dr. Thorndyke mysteries, The Mystery of 31 New Inn. I ended up opting for this one over some of his later works partly out of a sense of intrigue at the story’s premise but also because it is a work in the American public domain, meaning that it is easily accessible. Given that many of the posts in this series, at least in the immediate future, will require sourcing out of print and rare works, it is nice to be able to point to a work that everyone can obtain easily. As it happens, I also think it is a strong example of the author’s style…
The Mystery of 31 New Inn by R. Austin Freeman
Originally published in 1912
Dr. Thorndyke #4
Preceded by The Eye of Osiris
Followed by The Singing Bone
A man falls gravely ill, but is reluctant to call a doctor. As his condition worsens, he is eventually forced to seek medical aid—but he does so only under the condition that the physician does not learn his identity or address. Dr. Jervis is therefore transported to the man’s home in a 4-wheeled cab with tightly closed shutters. When he arrives, the doctor finds that the patient—who has been introduced with a pseudonym—exhibits all of the signs of morphine poisoning. But the sick man’s caretaker assures Jervis that this is outside the realm of possibility. Knowing neither the patient’s real name nor where he lives, Jervis feels both helpless and puzzled, so he consults his friend Dr. John Thorndyke. Versed in the nuances of medicine and law, Thorndyke is the only person who can solve this cryptic case.
The Mystery of 31 New Inn begins by reintroducing the reader to Dr. Jervis who is covering a fellow doctor’s practice which he is away. He receives a visit from a man who has been sent to summon him to assist a reluctant patient. The sick man, who is apparently highly mistrusting of doctors, has apparently only consented to be seen if his physician does not know his identity or the location of his home. Jervis is not pleased at the conditions but agrees to attend. When he does he is shocked by the patient’s condition, suspecting morphine poisoning. Feeling unsure of what to do given the strange circumstances of the case, Jervis seeks Dr. Thorndyke’s advice.
As it happens Dr. Thorndyke is about to embark on a puzzling case of his own. It concerns the recent death of a man who for reasons unknown decided to write and sign a new will with almost identical terms to one already in existence. There is one issue with the wording of the document however that proves highly significant because just hours before his death, the deceased unexpectedly inherited a sizeable sum of money which thanks to the change in wording would go to the estate’s executor rather than the heir…
Freeman thus provides the reader with two points of interest to hook them. Of these I found Dr. Jervis’ experience to be the more intriguing and atmospheric, helped by the thick mist and the candlelit visit, while Thorndyke’s problem appealed more as a puzzle. This is not a reflection on the complexity of the case but rather the curious details and contradictions present in its setup with the two very similar wills.
The Mystery of 31 New Inn is not intended to be an inverted mystery but I will say that the villain’s identity will be pretty obvious to the reader from the start, even if it is surprising to those involved in the case. Part of that is structural – there are some assumptions that the reader is likely to make because they are familiar with the genre and its tricks. It is also a matter of logic – once some facts are established the reader can pretty quickly reach some further conclusions through application of reasoning. This is not, as I suggested in my introduction, a bad thing but it does increase the likelihood that the reader will spend much of the novel ahead of the detectives. The question therefore is whether the story can hold the reader’s attention in spite of many of its secrets seeming quite apparent.
The joy in this work is not in any moment of surprise but in the quality of the construction. Even if the reader can identify the villain of the piece from near the novel’s start, there are still plenty of aspects of the puzzle left to resolve and that process can be quite satisfying.
One of my favorite clues is introduced in the novel’s seventh chapter and it offers a great example of the way Freeman handles his clues. He begins by introducing the clue – in fact in some editions, though sadly not the one pictured above, providing an illustration of it alongside the text (these are present in the Project Gutenberg copy). Thorndyke acknowledges the significance of the clue but does not explain it at first, giving Dr. Jervis and the reader time to consider its meaning. Then some possible implications are given and it will later be considered in conjunction with other clues Thorndyke has gathered. It can be a rather slow process but it’s a meticulous one and it does mean that the reader who values fair play is truly catered for.
Similarly I was impressed by Freeman’s attention to detail in the way he describes how some aspects of detection work. There is one process Thorndyke employs (the one referenced in the author’s note at the start of the book) that is particularly interesting and where there was some potential for confusion. Freeman does an excellent job however of carefully walking the reader through each step of the process to the point where I think the attentive reader could probably reproduce it for themselves – a pretty impressive feat!
As informative as it is, I must admit that Freeman’s prose is sometimes a little stiff and functional. This is good from the point of view of clarity but it also contributes to the sense that this reads like a late Victorian novel. Ultimately that didn’t bother me too much but I would suggest that if you come away from this wanting to read more Freeman it won’t be because of his narrative flair.
Still, the solution to the story is very tidy and Freeman does a good job of having Thorndyke walk the reader through the chain of reasoning they should have followed, carefully laying out the connections between each fact to build a complete picture of what had happened and the reasons for it. While there are few surprises, I enjoyed both the careful explanation of the crucial points of the case and also the reactions of the people he is explaining those facts to. My only disappointment there is that the aftermath of the reveal feels rather rushed and perhaps a little unsatisfying given it is recounted to the reader after it has happened.
As underwhelming as the coda to the investigation may be, I have to stress that I enjoyed the bulk of the book up to that point. While The Mystery of 31 New Inn may not be one of the toughest or most colorful cases to solve that you will ever read, it is told in an engaging way, encouraging the reader to figure out all of the connections between the various clues. More than anything it has reminded me that I want to seek out more Freeman in the future so expect further posts on his works to follow in the next few months!
The Verdict: A very solid, logical case hinges on a couple of excellent clues and one quite magnificent one. While Freeman’s writing style can be a little bland and functional, his plot construction was strong and those skills are in clear evidence here. Expect me to return to Freeman repeatedly over the next few months…
JJ @ The Invisible Event was also a fan of the journey that Freeman takes us on here, noting that “the journey with all its rigour and care is sheer manna from heaven for those of us with the taste for such undertakings.”