Mr. Pottermack’s Oversight by R. Austin Freeman

Book Details

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

The Blurb

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.

Probably the reader will overlook it, too, and will be deeply interested when, at the end of the book, Thorndyke explains the curious fact he had noted and details the intricate chain of reasoning by which, from this one fact, he was able to reconstruct the whole sequence of events.

The Verdict

A compelling exploration of an attempt to cover up a crime and the way that is carefully unpicked. Clever and audacious. Highly recommended.

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.

My Thoughts

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. 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

Book Details

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

The Blurb

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?

The Verdict

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

My Thoughts

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.

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