Tag Archives: R Austin Freeman

Grey Mask

Published in 1928, this is the first novel penned by the prolific Patricia Wentworth that I have read. Wentworth is the nom de plume of Dora Amy Elles, who spent most of her writing career in Camberley, no more than a cock’s stride from Blogger Towers. It introduces her most enduring, although sadly neglected, detective creation, Miss Silver. Most critics compare Miss Silver with Agatha Christie’s better-known female sleuth, Miss Marple, but Wentworth got there first, a couple of years ahead of Christie. Apart from a penchant for knitting and being female, it is hard, at least from this book, to see much more in the way of similarities.

Miss Silver, in truth, is a rather ethereal character, always there at the right place, ahead of the game with her deductions and not afraid to get stuck into action when the occasion calls. Behind the image of a dowdy spinster there is a figure of steely determination. She flits in and out of the action and it is difficult to determine quite how she came into possession of certain information or made a deduction that enhances the prospect of unmasking of the culprit. For those of us who like to see the mechanics of deduction take more of a centre stage, although perhaps avoiding the tedium that R Austin Freeman and, on occasion, Freeman Wills Crofts can bring to the process.

That aside, this is a rollicking tale, one that shows its age for sure, but its sheer entertainment value makes up for that. It has everything you would want; international criminals led by a masked Mr Big, heiresses who go missing, intrigue, snippets of letters, a drama played out in an atmospherically foggy London.

The plot is suitably ludicrous. Charles Moray has returned from a sojourn abroad after being jilted at the altar by Margaret Langton. Returning to his unoccupied house unannounced, he finds a suspicious meeting in progress, chaired by a man wearing a Grey Mask who receives reports and snippets of information from people who are known only by a number. Charles is shocked to recognise one of the agents, his former fiancée. What’s more, the subject of the discussion is a girl who will be “removed” if a “certificate” is found.

It transpires that the girl in question is the naïve, unworldly Margot Standing is set to inherit a sizeable fortune from her now deceased multi-millionaire father, if only her legitimacy can be confirmed. The gang, led by the man in the Grey Mask, are anxious to prevent this from happening and, if there is the prospect of Margot’s legitimacy being confirmed, will stop at nothing to eliminate her. The unfortunate girl at one point is almost thrown under a tram.

In a foray into Trollope territory, part of the resolution of the problem lies in the difference between the treatment of matrimony north and south of Hadrian’s Wall. I will not say more to avoid giving too much away but, needless to say, Miss Silver with the assistance of Charles Moray ensures that the tangled web of a case is resolved satisfactorily.

I will read more of Wentworth, if only to see whether Miss Silver takes more of a centre stage in later novels.

The Puzzle Lock

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.

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 – September 2020 (2)

Resorting to Murder – edited by Martin Edwards

I am a sucker for these themed anthologies of crime tales in short story form from the so-called Golden Age of Detective fiction, drawing on the encyclopaedic knowledge of Martin Edwards and published under the imprint of British Library Crime Classics. As the title suggests, this is a collection of 14 stories with a common theme of holidaymaking and resorts, whether seaside or mountain. Even when we take a well-deserved break, the spectre of murder most foul and dastardly crime is never far away.

With a book like this, it is always a good idea to start proceedings off with a classic. Edwards does this in (buckets and) spades with one of my favourite Sherlock Holmes stories, The Adventures of the Devil’s Foot. A woman is found dead and her two brothers are completely deranged. Holmes unravels the mystery with his usual aplomb.

Having opened the innings up on a sure footing, Conan Doyle’s brother-in-law, E.W Hornung keeps the pace moving with a wonderful story, A Schoolmaster Abroad, not involving Raffles but featuring John Dollar, his crime doctor whose interest is preventing crimes rather than solving them. A bit of a spoil sport, really. The story concerns a dissolute, wastrel of a youth and his teacher-guardian.

I have always thought Arnold Bennett an underrated writer, I blame the Bloomsbury set for dissing his rep, as they say, and I was slightly surprised to find that he wrote some detective fiction. His contribution, Murder!, is a well-crafted tale which inverts your natural sympathies. It is hard not to like the murderer and dislike their victim. By the same score, I have always found G K Chesterton a tad over-rated, probably because he rarely missed an opportunity to proselytise his new-found Catholicism. His Finger of Stone is the weakest of the stories.

One of the joys of these collections is encountering writers whom you would not otherwise have read. I can be excused for not coming across Gerald Findler before as he wrote so little and even less is now available. The House of Screams, though, is an excellent crossover between mystery and ghostly happenings and makes for a haunting and entertaining tale. One of my favourite stories of the lot, Michael Gilbert’s Cousin Once Removed, uses a delightful twist at the end and is not without a sense of irony. The perfect murder doesn’t quite seem as perfect after all.

Another story with a twist in its tail is Phyllis Bentley’s Where is Mr Manetot? The disappearance of the main character is quite a crime trope, Basil Thomson’s The Vanishing of Mrs Fraser also explores this theme less successfully, but Bentley pulls it from cliché with a well-written story. Another cliched plotline is a woman being forced to marry someone she despises, she has a beau on the side, and when he is murdered the young boyfriend is suspected. Fortunately, in McDonnell Bodkins’ The Murder on the Golf Links, Paul Beck is on hand to see that justice is done.

Edwards’ excellent anthology also has some stalwarts who, although never reaching the heights of a Conan Doyle, never fail to provide a dollop of solid entertainment. In A Mystery of the Sand-Hills by R Austin Freeman, Dr Thorndyke applies his scientific acumen to solve the cause of death and the identity of a victim, seemingly cause by drowning. H C Bailey’s The Hazel Ice is a delightfully tongue-in-cheek Reggie Fortune tale. Anthony Berkeley’s Razor Edge, though, lacks the writer’s usual sparkle.

The other stories, including Leo Bruce’s Holiday Task and Helen Simpson’s A Posteriori, are so-so but I found them unexceptional. That said, they did not spoil my enjoyment of what is overall a fine and interesting collection.   

What Is The Origin Of (261)?…

According to Cocker

It is rare in my etymological researches to be have nailed the origin of a phrase but I am pretty confident I have done so with this phrase I stumbled upon when reading one of R Austin Freeman’s Thorndyke detective stories, Pontifex, Son and Thorndyke from 1931. It means something that is done properly and in accordance with established rules and methodologies. But who was Cocker?

Edward Cocker, that’s who, who lived between 1631-75.,His Cocker’s Arithmetick, published posthumously in 1677, was to become the bane of the lives of many a schoolboy (and the odd lass) for centuries to come. So successful was the book to become that there were 112 editions of it, reaching its 20th edition by 1700 and its 52nd edition in 1748. Freeman would almost certainly have sampled its delights as a boy.

The delicious irony, of course, is that Cocker, although a master at a grammar school in Southwark, was better known for his penmanship and his mastery of the art of engraving in his time rather than his mathematical prowess. He appears several times in the diaries of Samuel Pepys, particularly as the only man the diarist knows who has the skill to engrave some tables on his new slide rule. On August 10, 1664 the diarist noted, “so I find out Cocker, the famous writing-master…well pleased with his company and better with his judgement upon my Rule, I left him and home”.   

We can only deduce that Crocker perfected his skills in drumming mathematical techniques into the unwilling skulls of his pupils whilst teaching. Part of his Arithmetick phenomenal success was due to the extremely practical approach to teaching the subject, concentrating specifically on the techniques and skills that tradespeople, builders and the like would need to go about their daily lives. The playwright, Arthur Murphy, gave it an early namecheck in The Apprentice in 1756 in this exchange between a despairing father, Wingate, and his reckless son, Dick; “Wingate: Let me see no more Play-Books. Dick: Cocker’s Arithmetick, Sir? Wingate: Ay, Cocker’s Arithmetick – study Figures, and they’ll carry you through the World”.  

Well-meaning men would give a copy of the book to children. Samuel Johnson, whilst visiting the Isle of Skye in September 1773, recorded in a letter that a little girl he had met “engaged me so much that I made her a present of Cocker’s Arithmetick”. Her reaction to this gift is unrecorded. And James Boswell recorded in his Life of Samuel Johnson that the great man, when asked why he travelled with a copy of Cocker’s, pontificated thus; “when you have read through a book of entertainment, you know it, and it can do no more for you; but a book of science is inexhaustible”.      

Inevitably, Cocker’s name, and by inference his methodology, became the yardstick of mathematical accuracy. The Town and Country Magazine of March 1785, reporting on a failed attempt to raise the stakes in a card game, noted that “she never played for above sixpences, and added, that her husband had calculated, according to Cocker, that an alderman might be ruined in a month, if his wife cut in for shillings”.  

It was also used in newspaper articles to confirm the veracity of a calculation. The Morning Post on October 25, 1816 reported that “the Dividend payable at the Bank upon 23l. 8s. is (according to Cocker) 23s. 22d. per annum”. By the time of Tom Brown at Oxford, written by Thomas Hughes and published in 1861, it had become a general bit of slang, used to denote what should happen; “According to Cocker. Who is Cocker? Oh, I don’t know; some old fellow who wrote the rules of arithmetic, I believe; it’s only a bit of slang”. In the negative, as Freeman used it, it meant something was not quite right; “there was no sign of the driver, and no one minding the horse; and as this was not quite according to Cocker, it naturally attracted his attention”.

The phrase has almost disappeared from sight these days. Now that can’t be according to Cocker.