Who is second to Sherlock Holmes as a detective ? Who is second to Arthur Conan Doyle as a writer of detective fiction ? Two rather different questions, but both sure to be warmly debated. However, for many, the answers are clear. Dr Thorndyke of the Middle Temple, the expert in “medical jurisprudence”, is very close to the great man in his attention to detail, his calm reasoning, and his flashes of ingenuity. And his creator, Richard Austin Freeman, is the eternal vice-captain in the team of great crime writers of the Golden Age.
Freeman was born in London in 1862, and one of the incidental pleasures of his books is the way they explore the many forgotten streets, squares and courtyards of the capital. Like Dickens (a favourite writer of his) before him, and like Freeman’s contemporary, Arthur Machen, he evokes the by-ways of the great city so well, it is almost like a character itself in many of his books. From fairly humble beginnings – his father was a tailor and his mother a dressmaker – Freeman gained a medical qualification and secured a colonial appointment as a doctor in West Africa. Fever drove him back to Britain when he was aged thirty and for a while it wasn’t clear what he would do next. Strikingly like Conan Doyle, he served as a locum doctor and used his ample spare time - when patients were unreasonably healthy - to write short stories.
In around thirty books, from The Red Thumb Mark of 1907 to The Jacob Street Mystery of 1942, Freeman brought a strong imagination to bear. Nearly all his cases feature the eminent Dr Thorndyke, whose investigations allow Freeman full rein to demonstrate his shrewd plotting and strong sense of the possibilities of forensic science, long before this was widely practised.
He is also notable for his willingness to innovate in the field of crime fiction. Freeman was one of the first, with The Singing Bone (1912), to deploy the “inverted” crime story. The reader knows who the murderer is from the outset, and the pleasure is in seeing how he can possibly be uncovered. This was an audacious move, but it’s generally recognised that Freeman makes it work. “The interest focuses on the unexpected significance of trivial circumstances,” he explained, and he recommended that the reader should pause after all the facts are laid out, to assess these. I am not so sure myself that this vicarious sleuthing is always the real interest of his tales though. I think he under-estimates his own skill at creating a sinister atmosphere, and the reader’s enjoyment of the lofty omniscience of Dr Thorndyke.
Another of his innovations was to tell the story from the standpoint of the villain, as in The Exploits of Danby Croker (1916). Though most crime fiction is written from the side of law and order, in fact Freeman found that the reader can also enjoy seeing a roguish character get away with it. Of course, E.W. Hornung had done that with the Raffles stories, but Freeman brings great gusto to his bounders and reprobates.
Freeman’s career began, in fact, with just such a character. Under the pseudonym of Clifford Ashdown, a name that disguised a collaboration with Dr J J Pitcairn (a prison surgeon he assisted in one of his temporary posts), he published in 1902 The Adventures of Romney Pringle. His hero – if that’s quite the right word – is in theory a literary agent but actually a consummate con man – if such a distinction is possible. A second series was published in Cassell’s Magazine in 1904 (though not collected in book form until 1969). Alas, something seems to have happened to mar his friendship with Pitcairn. Freeman was soon writing on his own, and under his own name, and Romney Pringle was heard of no more.
It’s some consolation, though, that in his place Freeman gave us his magisterial Dr Thorndyke. By making him both a qualified medical man and a barrister, Freeman gives his detective a highly advantageous set of skills and qualities for the investigation of crime. He is ably assisted by his Watson, Dr Christopher Jervis, by a solicitor, Mr Brodribb, who sometimes introduces cases to him, and by his factotum, Mr Polton – a craftsman in all things of the laboratory or workshop. The latter is essential to Thorndyke’s work, because, throughout the many novels and stories recounting his cases, Thorndyke makes great practical use of scientific experiments, for example with hair, shreds of clothing, soil, anything in fact that might yield up secrets invisible to the naked eye. It has been claimed that in many of these Freeman was actually ahead of the real detectives of his day, and that the methods Thorndyke deploys were taken seriously and studied by the Surete and Scotland Yard.
And there is no doubt Freeman saw this detailed analytical work as being at the heart of his stories. “The Detective Story differs from all other forms of fiction in that its interest is primarily intellectual,” he asserted. He conceded (perhaps a little grudgingly) that “emotion, dramatic action, humour, pathos, “love interest”” might also be allowed, but as “mere accessory factors”.
Some critics, conversely, have thought that all this scrutiny with scientific apparatus can give the books a cold, clinical air, and that the excitement of genius – such as one feels in the presence of Holmes – is missing from his more ponderous rival. But this is mostly unfair. Perhaps occasionally, some of the analytical detail is a little too minutely described. Yet most of the time it is briskly done, throws light on interesting subjects, and seems to the lay reader entirely sound. And Freeman often infuses Thorndyke with human warmth and a determination to aid the distressed and perplexed that counter-balances all this hard logic.
Freeman was also clear that the author must play fair with the reader and laid out three rules to ensure this: “1. The problem must be susceptible of at least approximate solution b y the reader; 2. The solution…must be absolutely conclusive and convincing; 3. No material fact must be withheld from the reader. All the cards must be honestly laid on the table…”. How many detective writers consistently obey all those ?
Perhaps his first great success was with The Eye of Osiris (1911), an excellent mystery involving a museum, a missing Professor, and a mummy, still highly-regarded today. The novel caught the imagination of readers who were in thrall to the exotic symbols and magical allure of ancient Egypt, which authors such as Bram Stoker (The Jewel of the Seven Stars), H. Rider Haggard (Cleopatra, etc), and Sax Rohmer (The Green Eyes of Bast and others) had fostered.
Another highly regarded novel is Mr Pottermack’s Oversight (1930), which makes excellent use of Freeman’s two unconventional techniques I mentioned earlier: the ‘inverted’ story, and sympathy with the villain. In this case, Mr Pottermack is being blackmailed. He does away with his persecutor, as the reader finds out very early on, and uses an ingenious device to quite literally lay a false trail. So – we know who the murderer is, and how he did it. But our interest is wonderfully sustained as we watch how Thorndyke uncovers his deception, even though we almost don’t want him to.
Undoubtedly one of the most startlingly bizarre of his books is For the Defence: Dr Thorndyke (1934), in which an innocent young man ends up (through an extraordinary set of incidents) standing trial for murdering himself. The book takes astonishing liberties with the laws of coincidence, but somehow the reader still has to keep on with the book, slack-jawed at the author’s impudence. I’ve often wondered if Freeman did it for a bet, if only with himself .
Freeman went on producing a new crime novel at roughly the rate of one a year – indeed, some dustwrappers actually announced it as if it were a regular annual event – “Mr Freeman’s 1930 Novel”. It’s fair to say that he always maintained a sound standard, though some critics sense the later titles strain at the possibilities a little. Also, perhaps understandably, he seems to have lost the appetite to innovate, and we remain in the essentially Edwardian world of his first books.
So, by the time of Freeman’s death in September 1943 at Gravesend, Kent, the place he had made his home for nearly 40 years, his fame had faded a little. That Golden Age atmosphere was no longer so much in demand. But over time, collectors began to rediscover his work and appreciate anew how satisfying it is. It is fair to say that a good half-dozen of Freeman’s books ought to be in every connoisseur’s crime fiction collection. But the true savant will want to track them all down.