The Detection Club Project – R. Austin Freeman: The Mystery of 31 New Inn

#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…

Second Opinions

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.”

Mr. Pottermack’s Oversight by R. Austin Freeman

Originally published in 1930
Dr. Thorndyke
Preceded by Dr. Thorndyke Investigates
Followed by Pontifex, Son and Thorndyke

Mr. Pottermack is persecuted by a blackmailer against whose extortions he is quite defenceless. Eventually he makes away with his persecutor and effectually conceals the body. But, too late, he discovers the unmistakable tracks of the deceased leading to his garden gate, and, since it is impossible to efface them, he conceives the idea of continuing them to some less compromising destination.

This he does with great skill and ingenuity and so convincingly that no hint of suspicion falls on him – until, by chance, the case comes to the notice of Dr. Thorndyke, who instantly detects the fraud. For there is one little, inconspicuous fact that Mr. Pottermack has overlooked.

It was true that everything seemed to be quite safe and secret. He, Pottermack, had taken every possible precaution. But supposing he had forgotten something; that he had overlooked some small but vital detail.

A little over a year ago I was having a discussion with JJ for his then-untitled Golden Age of Detection podcast in which we chatted about inverted mysteries. During our discussion he asked if I had ever read Mr. Pottermack’s Oversight and recommended it to me as something I would likely enjoy. It’s taken me some time to follow that advice but I am very happy to say that I did…

Mr. Pottermack is working in his garden preparing for the installation of a sundial when he uncovers a deep and rather dangerous well that had been lightly boarded over and covered in earth. When he finishes his work he opens his mail to discover another note from a blackmailer demanding a payment and informing him that he will call on him soon. When he arrives Mr. Pottermack decides he has had enough and strikes out, killing his tormentor and sending his body dozens of feet down the well.

For a few moments he is relieved to think that his ordeal is over but that feeling is short-lived as he soon realizes that there is a long and very clear trail of footprints leading their way into his garden…

Mr. Pottermack’s Oversight then is an example of the howcatchem style of inverted mystery. After witnessing the unplanned murder, the bulk of the novel is spent following Mr. Pottermack’s careful attempts to cover up his crime with only occasional asides where we briefly follow Dr. Thorndyke’s interest in the case. Our goal then is to spot the loose bit of thread that Thorndyke will use to start his chain of deductions. While I am not entirely convinced by Freeman’s assertion there is just one oversight to spot, it is a fun game to play.

Freeman provides the reader with a lot of technical detail as we see Pottermack carefully prepare and execute his various schemes but that is anything but dry. I was struck by the intelligence and the credibility of much of what is done, both in terms of believing that it could be done and that someone like Pottermack would conceive the plan in the first place.

The crime is hidden quite convincingly to the point where it seemed to me inconceivable that it could all get back to him at all, even if we know that Thorndyke is suspicious of him from the very beginning. Freeman however has a clever and compelling twist that will complicate Pottermack’s situation and force him to accept some additional risks. I might suggest that it is a somewhat Ilesian twist except, of course, that Malice Aforethought had yet to be published when Freeman wrote this. It certainly provides a strong boost to the story as Pottermack embarks on a truly audacious plan.

I don’t want to spoil where that plan takes him. This is a rather wild ride and part of the fun lies in figuring out exactly what he is trying to accomplish. I would say that the ideas used here are really quite original and entertaining, even if I have a few questions about whether they would have worked even in 1930. Freeman, to his credit, did ultimately reference some of those towards the end of the novel during the section in which Thorndyke explains how he pieced the truth together.

In that conversation with JJ I referenced the idea that one of the interesting aspects of the inverted mystery is that a skilled author can often create a character or situation that leads the reader to sympathize with the character of the killer. In some rare instances that may even extend to wanting to see them get away with it. This was one of those instances for me as I found Pottermack’s plight really quite sympathetic, particularly once we learn more about why he was being blackmailed. Even if you do not sympathize with him, his actions are always interesting and I appreciate that while he is thoughtful, he seems to remain in movement throughout most of the story.

Thorndyke, in contrast, spends much of the story in the background. He is only occasionally brought directly into the story and even then it is in an unofficial capacity. There is a sense of intrigue however generated by this added distance as it means that we are encouraged to deduce what he might have seen or understood in those very brief moments of interaction.

When he does finally offer us an explanation of the crime, I think it feels all the more interesting because we have had so little interaction with him up until that point. It is hard not to feel a small thrill as he calmly and methodically works through the case, pointing out incongruities and connections that may well have passed the reader by, even if we may want him to skip over some of the more obvious points and get to the clever stuff…

This, I suppose, brings me to the only real problem that I have with the novel – the aspect of the case identified as the oversight may be rather hard for modern readers to anticipate or visualize. That is plainly not Freeman’s fault – it simply reflects that then-common knowledge is not so today. Were the whole mystery hung on that one reveal I would be disappointed but fortunately there are plenty of other developments within the plot to spot and to try and understand. I would also suggest that while the specific information may be a little obscure, readers can still point to the general idea.

Overall I am happy to say that I really enjoyed this novel and felt it lived up to the billing it had received. While this is one of my shorter reviews (at least in recent years), that really reflects my desire to avoid spoiling the experience for those who have not read it. It’s a clever plot, explored quite thoughtfully and I felt that Freeman resolves the story rather memorably too.

The Verdict: A compelling exploration of an attempt to cover up a crime and the way that is carefully unpicked. Clever and audacious. Very highly recommended.

Further Reading

Given his role in pushing me to read this novel, I feel it only proper to link to JJ’s excellent review at The Invisible Event. I should also provide a link to the podcast episode I referenced.

The Singing Bone by R. Austin Freeman

Originally published 1912.
This volume collected stories originally published from 1909 to 1911.
Dr. Thorndyke #5
Preceded by The Mystery of 31 New Inn
Followed by A Silent Witness

Silas has diamonds in the heel of his shoe. He is a thief, but until the night he meets Oscar Brodski on the footpath near his house, he has never considered murder. A diamond dealer, Brodski’s pockets bulge with more precious stones than Silas has ever dreamed of, and they will be his with one swift, violent act. Silas does the deed and arranges the diamond dealer’s body to make the death look accidental. He has provided for every contingency—except for the arrival of a doctor named Thorndyke.

In this collection of stories, the reader knows the killer’s identity long before the ingenious medical detective enters the scene. These are brilliant early examples of open mysteries, in which the question is not whodunit—but how will he get caught?

In the introduction to The Singing Bone, R. Austin Freeman takes the credit for inventing what he terms the inverted mystery novel when he wrote his short story The Case of Oscar Brodski. He suggests that this was something of a experiment – an attempt to refocus the reader’s attention from whodunnit to the question of how they would be caught.

Freeman’s reason for experimenting with the form was to reject the artificiality of the detective story with its focus on who did the crime and instead create something more realistic. The suspense would not come in waiting for the reveal but rather in smaller, incremental moments in which we see the killer’s deceptions coming undone.

Freeman wrote of his project:

Would it be possible to write a detective story in which from the outset the reader was taken entirely into the author’s confidence, was made an actual witness of the crime and furnished with every fact that could possibly be used in its detection? Would there be any story left when the reader had all the facts? I believed that there would; and as an experiment to test the justice of my belief, I wrote “The Case of Oscar Brodski.” Here the usual conditions are reversed; the reader knows everything, the detective knows nothing, and the interest focuses on the unexpected significance of trivial circumstances.

R. Austin Freeman – Preface to The Singing Bone

While Freeman did not invent the idea of following a criminal as they conduct a crime, he does create a format that retained the structure of a detective story that would prove to be a model for later authors. Crofts, for example, follows the structure of splitting some of his inverted stories in half such as in Antidote to Venom, beginning by following the criminal and then switching to the investigator.

I have previously read and reviewed the earliest of the inverted stories, The Case of Oscar Brodski, on this blog but I wanted to go back and read the rest of the collection. This week I was given a little push towards doing that when I agreed to prepare for about inverted crime novels (more on that at a future time). It seemed to me that I couldn’t approach that without a fuller experience of Freeman so this jumped up to the top of my TBR pile.

Dr. Thorndyke is not the most animated sleuth around but Freeman’s stories are far from dull. The cases themselves and the process of deductive reasoning built on forensic evidence he uses can be really novel and entertaining. In a few cases, such as The Echo of a Mutiny, complex ideas are communicated and used very effectively.

I also appreciate that while Thorndyke is always successful at discovering everything the physical evidence has to offer there is no guarantee that the criminal will be held accountable. This not only adds an additional layer of interest to each story, it is also an acknowledgement that forensic scientists do not solve crimes themselves and also that sometimes you can find the killer but be unable to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt.

I found points of interest in each story in the collection but some particularly appealed. A Case of Premeditation engaged me with its challenges to the reader – something I had never encountered in an inverted story – and while I think Thorndyke guesses at some aspects of the case, it is very entertaining.

I also loved A Wastrel’s Romance which I think has an entertaining scenario and some charming character choices. Finally, I recommend The Case of Oscar Brodski for its importance to the development of the form.

On the whole I think that this is a very effective collection that left me keen to read more Freeman. Sure, the sleuth himself is a little dry but the situations Freeman creates are both colorful and interesting.

I offer more detailed thoughts on each of the individual stories on the second page of this review.

The Verdict: A key text in the development of the inverted mystery which includes several entertaining short stories.

Continue reading “The Singing Bone by R. Austin Freeman”

Resorting to Murder edited by Martin Edwards

Resorting to Murder
Martin Edwards (ed)
Originally Published 2015

The idea of the detective on holiday is a rather wonderful one and, as Martin Edwards points out in his introduction, has been a rich source of inspiration for mystery novels. This collection is concerned however with much shorter works and features a variety of stories in which the detective or victim is travelling away from home.

In some cases the travel is incidental to the story, used to place the mystery against an exotic backdrop whereas in others the idea of being in an unfamiliar environment is critical to the story’s themes and plot. The stories that Edwards selects draw on a variety of styles and approaches and demonstrate how a basic concept can be taken in many different directions and used for inspiration in many different ways.

There are, of course, some stories from writers who are widely known and remembered such as Arthur Conan Doyle and G. K. Chesterton but there are also a number of stories from lesser-known figures. Of those I particularly enjoyed the contributions from E. W. Hornung, Phyllis Bentley and Gerald Findler while there are some excellent stories from the better-known Michael Gilbert and Leo Bruce here too.

As with any anthology, there are a handful of disappointments in the collection but in most cases those stories fit and illustrate the theme well and their inclusion makes sense. I would certainly say that this is one of the strongest British Library Crime Classics anthologies that I have read and would put this up with The Long Arm of the Law in terms of the general quality of the stories collected.

Continue reading “Resorting to Murder edited by Martin Edwards”

Serpents in Eden edited by Martin Edwards

Serpents in Eden
Martin Edwards (ed)
Originally Published 2016

Life commitments have caused me to need to find something I can dip in and out of at pretty short notice so I have been picking up more of these British Library Crime Classics anthologies.

Serpents in Eden is a collection of crimes set in the countryside though the setting is more critical in some stories than others where it is merely background. As always Martin Edwards has selected a diverse collection of stories on his theme and provides superb introductions, both to the collection as a whole and then to the authors who wrote the individual entries featured.

It is a pretty interesting collection though a little less well balanced than others published as part of this range. I particularly recommend the very short Clue in the Mustard which is quite amusing at points and Murder by Proxy which has a clever solution.

If this volume’s theme appeals to you then I’d suggest picking it up as though there are always a few misfires, most of the volume is pretty entertaining and does a good job of preventing variations on a theme.

On to the stories…

The Black Doctor by Arthur Conan Doyle

Or perhaps more accurately: the Doctor of Indeterminate Swarthy Ethnicity. This is the story of a country doctor who has established a successful practice in Lancashire. After many years of bachelorhood he finally proposes to a local woman but abruptly calls off the wedding. The narrative is structured around the trial of a man believed to have killed him.

There is no detective or sleuth to follow – this is more in the line of an unusual story being related but it is quite enjoyable, if a little slight.

Murder by Proxy by M. McDonnell Bodkin

An entertaining read, even if some aspects of the crime are easy to deduce. The story concerns a man who is found dead in his study having been shot in the back of the head. Paul Beck is called in to investigate the case by the man’s son who has become the principal suspect.

Forget about who did it – the killer’s identity is clear enough – as the focus here is really on how the deed was done. The solution is quite clever though Beck never really proved his case, rather the guilty party confesses. Still, it is fun and I’d be interested to see out some other Beck adventures.

The Fad of the Fisherman by G. K. Chesterton

This didn’t capture my imagination at all and so did not make for the best first impression for Chesterton’s work. A murder takes place on a remote island near the country home of Sir Hook. While the mystery didn’t grab me, this is one of the stronger entries in the collection for incorporating countryside elements.

The Genuine Tabard by E. C. Bentley

I quite enjoyed this story in which a pair of American tourists show our sleuth a historic tabard they purchased at a vicarage while driving through the country though it is a little slow in the telling. The scheme is worked out well but the explanation is a little too detailed.

The Gylston Slander by Herbert Jenkins

A solid if unremarkable story about a vicar receiving anonymous letters laced with innuendo about his daughter and the curate.

The Long Barrow by H. C. Bailey

A woman reports that she is being followed by someone everywhere she goes. At first Reggie Fortune seems disinterested but when she adds that someone is littering the path with dead animals he agrees it seems suspicious.

An interesting concept and approach but in my opinion the ideas are not well realized.

The Naturalist at Law by R. Austin Freeman

You would think that given my love of inverted mysteries I would have got around to trying an R. Austin Freeman already. Well, this isn’t an inverted mystery but it does whet my appetite for when I do so.

The story involves an apparent suicide of a man in a ditch. The inquest cannot reach a conclusion but Dr. Thorndyke is certain it is murder and conducts his own investigation. The question is why does Dr. Thorndyke think it is murder and how will he prove it. The answers are clever.

A Proper Mystery by Margery Allingham

This is a very short story set in a public house several weeks after a vegetable show was ruined when the produce is trampled by cattle. Tensions are still high in the village as some of the contenders suspect each other for orchestrating the disaster. The resolution of the story is quite charming, if expected.

Direct Evidence by Anthony Berkeley

A simple and dragged out case in which a man is accused of the murder of the woman he is having an affair with. The solution to why the suspect would have murdered her in plain sight of the village is obvious from the start and so the only question is what precise evidence will Sheringham be able to assemble to prove it. A disappointment.

Inquest by Lenora Wodehouse

A very different story that strikes a decidedly interesting and provocative note at its end. The narrator is travelling by train when he encounters a familiar face he is unable to place at first. It turns out that they recognize each other from an inquest into the death of a man who seems to have been murdered by his nephew.

The plot of the story is interesting enough to make this worth recommending but the tone of the ending is very different and there are some aspects of the solution that feel quite original. A highlight in the collection, though the countryside elements are minimal.

The Scarecrow by Ethel Lina White

A young woman escapes assassination and her would-be killer is locked away. Several years later he emerges from prison, placing the woman in danger. How will she and her friends evade the killer’s notice.

While this is an interesting premise and I did like some of the turns of phrase and details in the novel, it didn’t resonate with me as I had hoped. That is a shame because there is some excellent writing here.

Clue in the Mustard by Leo Bruce

A short but amusing story that sees Sergeant Beef solve his first murder (though you wouldn’t really know that if it weren’t mentioned in the preface to the story). An elderly woman is found dead in her garden to some surprise as she had seemed in relatively good health. While it appears like natural causes were responsible, Beef is able to demonstrate it was murder and explain how it was managed.

The method used is quite ingenious (and I am pleased to say that I guessed most of it) but the best part is Beef’s unusual reasoning for how he works it all out.

Our Pageant by Gladys Mitchell

The final story is incredibly short but also one of my favorites in the collection. It involves a village performance of a morris dance which has created some tensions between several of the men of the village. When someone ends up dead we are left wondering who may have been responsible.

It’s a clever little tale with a great reveal that is all the more impressive for being told in just a few pages.