The Puzzle Lock – R Austin Freeman
Another collection of short stories, nine in all published in 1925, showcasing the talents of R Austin Freeman’s detective creation, Dr Roger Thorndyke. Through the eyes of his faithful scribes, principally, but not exclusively, Jervis, the reader has the opportunity to wonder at the observational skills and deep scientific knowledge that Thorndyke deploys to crack what otherwise seem intractable problems.
I had read a couple before in anthologies, Mystery of the Sandhills and the Green Check Jacket, but that did not spoil my enjoyment and it was interesting to seem them in the context of this collection. The problem I find with Freeman is that he is a bit dry as a writer, scrupulously fair with the reader in explaining the intricacies of the cases and determined to reveal the depth of Thorndyke’s forensic knowledge, whereas some of the stories could do with a bit of Conan Doyle’s lightness of touch, even if the latter comes at the expense of probability and credibility.
The eponymous story opens the collection and Thorndyke in attempting to solve the mysterious disappearance of two men and a robbery, finds himself and his colleagues in a tricky hole. In order to escape with his life he has to crack the code to an ingenious chronograph lock. That there are eight further tales rather suggests that he succeeded.
Thorndyke’s ability to analyse dirt and chalk comes in handy in solving the complexities of the Green Check Jacket and, in particular, in placing the murder spot, while his understanding of the peculiarities of walking sticks leads to the resolution of the conundrum that is Nebuchadnezzar’s Seal. Mystery of the Sand Hills revolves around footprints made in the sand and the dunes.
Rex v Burnaby is an unusual twist on the usual tales as Thorndyke is trying to prevent a murder. A man is extremely sensitive to a particular drug that appears to be poisoning him. However, it is almost impossible to fathom out how the drug is being administered to him. Cue, Roger Thorndyke. In a similar vein, Apparition of Burling Court involves a man who believes that a curse has been responsible for the deaths of some of his ancestors and that he is next on the list. Will Thorndyke solve the case in the nick of time?
He has his work cut out to defend his clients in Phyllis Annersley’s Pearls as two witnesses to the woman’s murder positively identify them. All is not lost, though.
Money is a powerful motive for murder and that is the theme behind The mysterious visitor. The disappearance of a man is barely cause for concern until it is discovered that he has inherited a large fortune. He needs to be found and, quite how did the legatee die? The premise to the Sower of Pestilence is a little bizarre in that a man running a cats’ orphanage receives a large donation in the form of a purse that has clearly been stolen. A bank is then bombed. Are the two incidents linked? Thorndyke, of course, reveals all.
As the solicitor remarks at the end of Phyllis Annersley’s Pearls; “and yet it is so obvious – when you know”. A book to dip in and out of if you like cases of a more technical nature.