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.