Tag Archives: Arthur Conan Doyle

Twenty-Nine Of The Gang

Not the cheese, according to James Ware in his Passing English of a Victorian Era, meant not satisfactory. According to Dr Brewer, it came from the Persian and Hindu word for a thing cheez, but others thought it was a corruption of the French phrase, ce n’est pas la chose. The Irish preferred not up to rap, the rap and abbreviation of rapparee, good for nothing, the name given to worthless base metal coins that circulated in Ireland in the early to mid-18th century.

Not today, baker was said to a youth paying unwanted attention to a young lady, although originally it was said by housewives to bakers making their morning call when their wares were not required.

I have used oh my eye on occasions as a form of exclamation, but I had not realised that it was a corruption of the opening words of the prayer to St Martin, the patron saint of beggars, a mihi.

Another historical character whose name was adopted into slang was Ignatius Pollaky, a consulting detective in the mode of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, based in Paddington Green, who spent decades, until he retired in 1880 at the height of his fame, unravelling swindles and tracking down foreign fugitives. His fame was such, partly fuelled by the enigmatic advertisements he had printed in the newspapers, that his name became a household word, often appearing in newspapers and in popular song and stories. Oh, Pollaky became a form of protest against overbearing and urgent enquiries.

The English have a reputation for being resistant to foreign languages or for mangling foreign phrases. Here are another couple of examples of this trait. Olive oil was a Music Hall variant of the French phrase au revoir and on for a tatur meant fascinated, entranced, used of a man at a bar making eyes at the barmaid, said to be a variant of tête à tête. Some things never change.    

Dr Thorndyke’s Casebook

Dr Thorndyke’s Casebook – R Austin Freeman

Sherlock Holmes, Lord Peter Wimsey, Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple…the roll call of fictional detectives is impressive but missing, at least these days, from the board of honour is Dr John Thorndyke, R Austin Freeman’s principal creation. In his day he was popular with readers and there were even some that thought he rivalled Holmes rather than simply owing his existence to Freeman’s desire to emulate Conan Doyle. Part of the problem is that Doyle is the better writer, more impressionistic and more fun to read, whereas Freeman, a medic himself, is more concerned with the logic and science behind the crimes and the conclusions that Thorndyke draws, a preoccupation which often means that his stories are duller in comparison and sometimes hard-going.

As a pure detective, though, and to some this may be a contentious point, Thorndyke is the superior, his methodology rooted in a deep understanding of science and a careful consideration and dissection of the facts that he unearths. Holmes has a flightier approach, using intuition and what he calls inductive reasoning. He sometimes gets his facts wrong and has to resort to advertising to make headway, something Thorndyke rarely, if ever, has to resort to. Devoid of eccentricities and dubious habits, Thorndyke’s sole attraction is his stone-cold logic. He is a colder fish and if you had a choice between a story involving Holmes or Thorndyke, for entertainment and the quality of the writing, most would plump for Holmes.      

We ignore Thorndyke at our peril, though, as the stories, as examples of the detective’s methodology, are worth reading today, if only to recall that in the days without DNA testing a knowledge of what our politicians would call “the science” could take you a long way. Published in 1923 Dr Thorndyke’s Casebook is a collection of seven short stories, narrated to us by Thorndyke’s bagman, Jervis. Rather like Watson, Jervis, although a medic, is there to represent the everyman whose initial bafflement and then wonder as his detective friend unravels the mystery are designed to enhance the reader’s respect for the maestro.

Thorndyke, a lecturer in medical jurisprudence, has a consultative practice and members of the public are happy to engage him, rather like Holmes, either in place of the police, or in conjunction with the police, to crack a seemingly impenetrable problem. Sometimes he is called in by the police to add his considerable intellectual heft to the effort.

Three of the cases involve murder. My favourite was The Funeral Pyre where a body in a hayrick is identified by its false teeth and dental patterns on clay pipes go some way to unmasking the culprit. The Case of the White Footprints, the opening story, relies upon the unmasking of a murderer who lacks any little toes. Thorndyke, once he realises that this infirmity is a symptom of a rare disease, ainhum, is able to finger the culprit. The weakest of the trio of murders is The New Jersey Sphinx where the murderer, who has a thyroid problem, rushes around trying to incriminate and impersonate others.     

The other four involve theft. The best of the quartet and the best known, The Blue Scarab, involves the loss of a jewel which holds the key to a buried treasure. The theft of a will features in The Touchstone, a necklace in A Fisher of Men and the title of The Stolen Ingots is self-explanatory. Thorndyke’s knowledge of the specific gravity of metals helps him solve the mystery.

If you haven’t tried Freeman, his short stories are a more palatable, digestible entrée to his craft than his novels.

Book Corner – November 2019 (4)

The Amateur Cracksman – E W Hornung

It is good, every now and again, to turn literary conventions on their head. The classic crime novel has a detective, often an amateur sleuth, together with faithful sidekick, solving nigh on impossible crimes which have baffled all and sundry and bring the felons to justice. Ernest William Hoffnung’s crime creation, on the other hand, is a gentleman thief, who uses his cunning and position to pull off astonishing robberies and evade detection.

Arthur J Raffles, together with his friend, Bunny Manders, is the yin to the yang of Hornung’s brother in law’s famous creation, Sherlock Holmes and the ever faithful Dr Watson. Indeed, this collection of eight stories, first published in 1899, was dedicated to Arthur Conan Doyle, perhaps with tongue firmly planted in cheek.

Our hero, if he can so be described, is a pillar of Victorian society, an excellent cricketer who plays regularly for England and at Lord’s but a spendthrift who rarely has enough money to live on. His answer to his regular cashflow problems is to use his position in society, it allows him access to all the rich houses in the capital, to commit the odd robbery or two and live off the earnings of his work. In the first story, The Ides of March but originally published as a short story in 1898 as In the Chains of Crime, Raffles happens upon Bunny, the narrator of the tales a la Watson, down on luck and initiates him into his line of work.

The third story, Gentlemen and Players, introduces two characters who are going to make life difficult for the duo, Inspector Mackenzie of Scotland Yard and a notorious criminal, Crawshay. In the seventh story, The Return Match, Raffles manages to get the dangerous Crawshay off his back but in doing so reignites the suspicions of Mackenzie.

The last story, The Gift of the Emperor, sees Raffles at his most audacious but his plans come unstuck when the stalwart detective boards the ship he is travelling on at Genoa and a search reveals that Raffles has the stolen jewel. Raffles jumps overboard and neither Bunny nor the then reader knows whether he made it to the shore or not, surely a nod to Doyle’s The Final Problem and Holmes’ encounter with his nemesis, Moriarty, at the Reichenhach Falls. The modern reader knows that this isn’t the end of Raffles, just as Holmes survives his tussle – you don’t kill off the goose that lays the golden egg – but you can imagine the impact on the readers at the time.   

In truth, these stories are barely credible, laced with the arrogant snobbery of the Victorian upper classes, very politically incorrect, racist and sexist, but if you are prepared to put up with that, then they are entertaining, undemanding reads. Perhaps troubled by the thought of a gentleman thief, Hornung goes to great lengths to show that Raffles has a code of conduct. He would never stoop to murder and will only steal out of financial necessity. However, in the heat of a robbery, his steadfastness sometimes slips.

There are moments of comedy too and poor old Bunny is the stooge to the great man, never really let into what is going on, there to provide the muscle and, when he does use his initiative as in Nine Points of the Law, he nearly wrecks the plan. This means that the reader is, along with Bunny, behind the action, a device that some readers may find irksome. As Bunny states with some justification, “You lay your plans, and never say a word, and expect me to tumble to them by light of nature”.    

Still, take the stories for what they are and you will spend an enjoyable evening.