The Red Thumb Mark – R Austin Freeman
I have a confession to make. I have a penchant for detective stories and mysteries. I find them a light relief from the heavier fare that normally makes up my reading list. I like to go slightly off piste from the usual detective novelists – Conan Doyle, Christie, Sayer, Simenon et al – and I was encouraged to try Austin Freeman, not someone I had read before. He wrote 27 novels featuring Doctor Thorndyke and for no better reason than you need to start somewhere, I decided to read the first of the series, published in 1907.
On opening the book I wondered whether I was reading a Sherlock Holmes manqué. The protagonist is a clever sleuth, Dr Thorndyke, who specialises in medico-legal enquiries and has the brain power of Conan Doyle’s creation minus the neuroses. The account of his exploits is written by his faithful friend and unemployed doctor, Doctor Jervis. The real culprit is neither arrested nor brought to justice nor really named, although there are enough clues in the latter part of the book for the diligent reader to be pretty sure of their identity. There is some love interest, although it is done in the rather prim and proper manner you would expect from an Edwardian novel, as the loyal Jervis falls under the charms of Juliet Gibson. The real object of her affections becomes clear as the book concludes.
The mystery is simple enough. Reuben Hornby is accused of stealing some diamonds deposited in his uncle’s safe. He has one of the few keys to the safe – his uncle, John, and cousin, Walter have the others – and it seems a fair cop when a piece of paper with a bloody thumb print matching Reuben’s distinctive dabs is found in the safe. Reuben has his collar felt and languishes in jail ahead of his trial, protesting his innocence. His aunt and Juliet are convinced of his innocence and Thorndyke is brought in to resolve the case.
There are moments of comedy – the aunt is portrayed as a bit of a dotty character and her appearance in the witness stand is the comedic highlight of the book. There is the usual sexist language and treatment of women that went with the age. Polton, Thorndyke’s amanuensis, tidies up the rooms prior to a visitation by the fairer sex because he “evidently appreciated the difference between the masculine and the feminine view as to the proper appearance of working premises” – a difference of view that persists to this very day, if the discussions between TOWT and I about my office are anything to go by. And there is an intriguing moment when Juliet asks Jervis whether he considered Thorndyke “a dear”. Perhaps the modern habit of trying to determine hints of sexuality makes too much of it.
The solving of the mystery involves the aunt’s Thumbograph. This was akin to an autograph book where family and friends signed and dates a box on the left hand of the page and left their thumb mark on the right. I’m sure it brightened up many a dull dinner party. It also makes an appearance in The Crooked Hinge by John Dickson Carr, published in 1938 and was important as finger prints were the DNA of the modern police force. But, as Thorndyke demonstrates, finger prints are not infallible and need to be seen in context.
It is an entertaining read but perhaps seemed more dated than, say, Sherlock Holmes. The scientific explanations of Thorndyke’s methodology can grate but overall, it reflects well on an author who has rather gone out of fashion.