Adapted from my Master’s thesis, University of Sydney, 2012.
The year is 1907, and R. Austin Freeman, a doctor with literary ambitions, sits down to write a detective story.
Another doctor led the way. For 20 years, Arthur Conan Doyle’s adventures of Sherlock Holmes have enthralled readers on both sides of the Atlantic. When Doyle sent Holmes tumbling off Reichenbach Falls, to what he hoped was his detective’s doom, readers were outraged – and Doyle was forced to bring Holmes back.
Other writers leapt on the Holmes bandwagon. Some looked at Holmes, with his eccentricities (violin, cocaine, slipperful of tobacco), and tried to create an equally memorable Great Detective. Some were ordinary, some were women, some, even, were blind. Most of these writers based their tales around the detective’s personality.
Freeman, though, had other ideas. Sherlock Holmes is all very well, he thought, but isn’t he rather flashy? Rather glib and specious? Brilliant deductions, yes, but unsubstantiated. For all Holmes’ talk about reasoning, there’s little actual demonstration.
Then what about the careless howlers in the Holmes stories? What is the scientific name of the Indian swamp adder? What is baritsu? Couldn’t the detective story be more accurate, more realistic, more scientific?
And so Freeman created Dr. John Evelyn Thorndyke, lecturer in medical jurisprudence, and prince of polymaths, and set him investigating the mystery of The Red Thumb Mark.
Despite the lurid title, it’s a carefully realistic story of a burglary. A man’s fingerprint in blood is found at the scene of the crime; the police arrest him; but his fiancée believes him innocent, and consults Dr. Thorndyke.
That note of realism distinguishes Freeman from Doyle. (Hence Mike Grost’s name for Freeman and his followers: the Realist School.) The Sherlock Holmes stories show a brilliant amateur detective investigating grotesque crimes.
Freeman’s ideal was a detective story “based on the science of Medical Jurisprudence, in which, by the sacrifice of a certain amount of dramatic effect, one could keep entirely within the facts of real life, with nothing fictitious except the persons and the events” (Freeman, “Meet Dr. Thorndyke”, 1935).
Freeman’s stories are low-key and naturalistic, and, as Oliver Mayo (R. Austin Freeman: The Anthropologist at Large, 1980) points out, often take place in working- or middle-class environments, with crimes committed for everyday reasons, often by professional criminals. Freeman has no equivalent of Doyle’s supervillains: Dr. Grimesby Roylott, with his dangerous menagerie; Baron Adelbert Gruner, who, like Don Giovanni, keeps a record of every woman he’s slept with; or Charles Augustus Milverton, the master blackmailer with a face like Pickwick and the eyes of a snake.
Sherlock Holmes and his imitators were supermen, borderline sociopaths, and substance abusers. The apogee may well be M.P. Shiel’s Prince Zaleski, a Russian exile who lives in a ruined abbey, in a room filled with antiquities and stuffed animals, and reads Nietzsche while smoking opium and cannabis.
Dr. Thorndyke, in contrast, is a reputable professional man, mentally and physically healthy; the average intelligent man raised by diligence and industry to excellence, and who reached his conclusions using methods the average intelligent reader could follow (Freeman 1935).
Dr. Thorndyke is the first genuinely scientific detective in fiction, and such a towering figure that the Times dubbed him “the Ace of Detectives”.
Twenty more Dr. Thorndyke novels, and five short story collections, would follow over the next 30-odd years. (See bibliography.) These include:
- The Eye of Osiris (1911), about a vanishing Egyptologist;
- The Singing Bone (1912), a collection of “inverted” short stories, in which the reader first sees the criminal commit the deed and try to cover his tracks, and then how the detective solves the case;
- As a Thief in the Night (1928), an ingenious poisoning, with better characterization than normal
- Mr. Pottermack’s Oversight (1930), an inverted novel, about an old lag who disposes of a blackmailer
Freeman’s contemporaries held him in high esteem. He was a pioneer among detective writers. Doyle may have created the first Great Detective, but Freeman was the father of the modern detective story.
Freeman almost single-handedly made the genre respectable. “Nowadays,” wrote Dr. Watson in the Manchester Evening Chronicle, “all is changed. Cabinet Ministers, Judges, University Professors and Bishops all openly admit that they read detective stories. What has caused this revolution in taste? I have no doubt of the answer, and can give it by saying one name – Austin Freeman.”
Dorothy L. Sayers (Sunday Times, 22 October 1933) believed Freeman developed the detective story into a carefully written and constructed genre that educated people could read with pleasure.
He introduced the “fair play” rule by which all clues must be shown to the reader (Howard Haycraft, Art of the Mystery Story, 1941), rather than, as Sherlock Holmes too often did, keeping evidence to himself, the better to surprise his unsuspecting Watson and the reader. Dr. Thorndyke challenges his associate (usually a young doctor, like Jervis or Jardine) to solve the mystery. “Don’t attempt to suck my brain when you have an excellent brain of your own to suck.”
(Hammer Horror, back in the ’60s, tried unsuccessfully to combine classic detective fiction with zombies, resulting in a series of flops including Night of the Living Thorndykes and Plague of the Thorndykes.)
H. Douglas Thomson (Masters of Mystery, 1931) saw Freeman’s move towards realism as a breakthrough for the genre, emphasizing probability and accuracy over the outré and grotesque, and replacing the Superman detective with a human being.
More recently, Douglas G. Greene (John Dickson Carr: The Man Who Explained Miracles, 1995) credited Freeman’s early novels with turning the genre from a short story-dominated form (as Sherlock Holmes and his Rivals’ adventures were) into a form dominated by the novel. Three of the four full-length Holmes stories are really mystery novellas with another novella, an adventure yarn set in the USA or India, attached. Freeman’s books are conceived and executed as a whole, which gives the characters space to develop, and the story room to breathe.
Freeman’s patented scientific detective story
Freeman thought the process of detection – how the mystery was solved – was more important than the mystery itself. He made his views clear in “The Art of the Detective Story” (1924). The detective story was rigorously intellectual, “an argument conducted under the guise of fiction”. The thriller, which was sensational and emotional, was a vulgar bastardization, of negligible interest.
Whereas everybody read Sherlock Holmes, Freeman wrote for a niche audience: “men of a subtle type of mind” such as “theologians, scholars, lawyers, and to a lesser extent, perhaps, doctors and men of science”. Such readers were interested n a logical argument, “in which the matter to be proved is usually of less consideration than the method of proving it”.
Freeman introduced the scientific method and empiricism to the genre. He became known as “the foremost practitioner of the scientific detective story, a story where the detective is a scientific worker, a story where the insights and techniques of science are used for the solution of a mystery” (E.F. Bleiler, introduction to The Stoneware Monkey and The Penrose Mystery, Dover 1973).
True, there were scientific detectives before Dr. Thorndyke, but their creators tended to borrow the trappings of science (fiendish murder devices, elaborate machines that went ping), rather than the scientific attitude.
Freeman saw detection as the scientific method applied to crime. Its stages, Dr. Thorndyke explains in A Silent Witness (1914), are observation, hypothesis, prediction, experimentation, and conclusion.
Dr. Thorndyke’s approach is objective and empirical, based on deductions from verifiable facts. He searches for “some fact of high evidential value which can be demonstrated by physical methods and which constitutes conclusive proof of some important point”.
It consists in the interrogation of things rather than persons; of the ascertainment of physical facts which can be made visible to eyes other than his own. And the facts which he seeks tend to be those which are apparent only to the trained eye of the medical practitioner.
This method differs from the police technique of “the careful and laborious examination of a vast mass of small and commonplace detail” to “accumulate a great body of circumstantial evidence which will ultimately disclose the solution of the problem”.
Freeman’s stories are uniquely physical, concerned with the outward appearance of things. Nothing is too small or insignificant. “The evidential value of any fact is an unknown quantity until the fact has been examined” (“The Old Lag”).
Many of the Thorndyke stories plead for a scientific expert to investigate crime scenes. In “A Message from the Deep Sea”, the sleuth emphasizes that crime scenes must not be touched until the expert has arrived, in case crucial evidence is destroyed:
“When it is discovered that a murder has been committed, the scene of that murder should instantly become as the Palace of the Sleeping Beauty. Not a grain of dust should be moved, not a soul should be allowed to approach it, until the scientific observer has seen everything in situ and absolutely undisturbed. No tramplings of excited constables, no rummaging by detectives, no scrambling to and fro of bloodhounds. Consider what would have happened in this case if we had arrived a few hours later. The corpse would have been in the mortuary, the hair in the sergeant’s pocket, the bed rummaged and the sand scattered abroad, the candle probably removed, and the stairs covered with fresh tracks.
“There would not have been the vestige of a clue.”
“And,” I added, “the deep sea would have uttered its message in vain.”
Take “The Case of Oscar Brodski”, the first inverted story.
Dr. Thorndyke inspects the corpse, which has apparently been run over by a train, and can tell:
- that the victim was murdered (the direction the blood flowed didn’t match the position in which the body was found);
- how the victim was murdered (tuft of textile fabric in teeth);
- in what sort of place the victim was murdered (a private house with a carpeted floor) and that he was carried from thence to the railway line (examination of shoes).
Dr. Thorndyke then finds the house and proves the tenant’s guilt using other physical clues: broken glass, from both a pair of spectacles and a drinking tumbler; an iron bar; a cigarette and a match; wholemeal biscuit crumbs; and the victim’s hat.
The case, Dr. Thorndyke says, proves three things:
“First, the danger of delay; the vital importance of instant action before that frail and fleeting thing that we call a clue has time to evaporate. A delay of a few hours would have left us with hardly a single datum. Second, the necessity of pursuing the most trivial clue to an absolute finish, as illustrated by the spectacles. Third, the urgent need of a trained scientist to aid the police; and, last,” he concluded with a smile, “we learn never to go abroad without the invaluable green case.”
That invaluable green dispatch case contains Dr. Thorndyke’s portable miniature laboratory. The British police adopted some of his methods, while their evidence box was green in honour of Thorndyke’s.
Educational detective stories
Freeman also hoped his readers would learn something new about the world, particularly natural history and the physical sciences.
Norman Donaldson (In Search of Dr. Thorndyke, 1971) believes Freeman’s works amount to an education in the scientific method and rationalism, “teaching a young mind, in a most fascinating way, the validity of the scientific approach, not only to criminal problems, but, by extension, to the affairs of life”.
Donaldson tells us:
Whenever possible, Freeman carried through laboratory processes himself to see how they went; collected and photographed marine shells and industrial dust; built see-behind spectacles and periscope walking sticks; all so that his characters could engage in realistic activities.
Thorndyke’s tools include:
- the microscope. In “A Wastrel’s Romance”, Dr. Thorndyke builds up a picture of the wanted man’s home by examining the dust on his clothes.
- photography. In Mr. Pottermack’s Oversight, Dr. Thorndyke uses a recording camera to shoot a series of footprints, and concludes that they are forgeries.
- X-rays. The classic example is The Eye of Osiris. SPOILER (highlight text to read) Dr. Thorndyke identifies a supposed Egyptian mummy as the 20th-century corpse of a missing Egyptologist. The first X-ray on a mummy took place earlier that decade, when Grafton Elliot Smith and Howard Carter examined the mummy of Thutmose IV in Cairo in 1904.
The original magazine publications contained photographs of clues, often microscope slides. Donaldson argues that these “must have given many readers their first insight into the real gifts which the scientific investigator brings to his work”, since such illustrations “had never before appeared alongside popular fiction”. Unfortunately, only the first collection, John Thorndyke’s Cases (1909), reproduced the photographs.
Other stories display Dr. Thorndyke’s knowledge of medicine and pathology, natural history, or geology.
In The Mystery of Angelina Frood (1924), Dr. Thorndyke uses his knowledge of secondary sex characteristics SPOILER (highlight text to read) to determine that a skeleton is a man’s, and not, as presumed, that of the missing Mrs. Frood. He displays his knowledge of obscure tropical diseases in “The Case of the White Footprints” (ainhum) and “The Pathologist to the Rescue” (filaria).
Medical peculiarities are used to identify suspects in other stories. In The Mystery of 31, New Inn (1912), SPOILER (highlight text to read) Mrs. Schallibaum has a swivel eye, while the murderer ‘Graves’ has a tremulous iris. Freeman parodied this in his next novel, A Silent Witness (1914), in which a man with nystagmus, and following the hero, Dr. Jardine, turns out to be not a villain, but a foreign detective employed by the missing Vitalis Reinhardt’s friend to watch Dr. Jardine, whom he suspects of murder. In the same book, however, a criminal impersonation is made possible by the fact that the victim had skin disease, and the murderer had brachydactylous hands, so that both men wore gloves. In Mr. Pottermack’s Oversight (1930), both the blackmailer Lewson and Dr. Thorndyke identify Mr. Pottermack as the runaway convict Jeffrey Brandon because he has a port-wine mark / diffuse naevus on his ear. In Dr. Thorndyke Intervenes (1933), the detective can tell that a severed head is really a medical specimen, because the face displayed all the features of acromegaly.
Other stories involve the natural world, including botany, zoology, entomology, and marine life. In “The Naturalist at Law”, Thorndyke’s knowledge of duckweed tells him that a man was murdered and that the corpse was then moved. In “The Old Lag”, he recognizes that the blood on a handkerchief is not human but a camel’s (the only mammal with elliptical corpuscles) SPOILER (highlight text to read); from there, it’s an easy step to showing that the murderer is a camel-keeper at a zoo. In “The Echo of a Mutiny”, set in a lighthouse, acorn barnacle shells and worm tubes (common serpula) in the victim’s hair show that he was struck with a partially submerged body: the piles of the lighthouse. In The Eye of Osiris, dried egg-clusters of the common pond snail and tubes of the red river worm on the bones show that a skeletal hand and arm were put into a pond separately.
Freeman reopens the reader’s eyes to the beauties of the natural world. I’ve spent the morning reading about pond life or the liver fluke, and then pottered around the wilderness in the rain, watching caterpillars and water-beetles.
Freeman’s plot innovations
Many of Freeman’s plot ideas became standard techniques of the genre. These include physical trails of evidence; the “breakdown of identity” plot; the disposal of the corpse; and scientific or legal problems. (See Mike Grost’s articles on “The Realist School of Detective Fiction” and on Freeman himself.)
Physical trails of evidence
Several Thorndyke stories involve trails of footprints (“The Man with the Nailed Shoes”, “The Case of the White Foot-prints”) or tyre tracks (“The Stranger’s Latch-key”) left by the villain. In other stories, the culprits try to mislead the police by manufacturing false physical trails of evidence. The obvious ancestor is Doyle’s “Adventure of the Priory School”, where the murderer shoes a horse with shoes shaped like cows’ hooves.
The most famous example is The Red Thumb Mark, which concerns forged fingerprints. Dr. Thorndyke explodes “certain popular misapprehensions on the subject of fingerprints and their evidential value”. Freeman returned to forged fingerprints in other stories, notably “The Old Lag”, The Cat’s Eye (1923), Mr. Pottermack’s Oversight, and When Rogues Fall Out (1932).
The breakdown of identity
Mike Grost defines the breakdown of identity plot as one involving impersonation or the substitution of corpses to convince the detective that one person is really two, two people are really one, or person A is really person B. The detectives have to establish the identities of the parties in the case: are the murderer and victim who they appear to be? Prominent examples include The Mystery of 31, New Inn SPOILER (highlight text to read), where the villain impersonates his victim to secure an inheritance.
Other stories concern the substitution of corpses and presumption of death. The villain may:
- pass off one corpse (often an Egyptian mummy) as the victim’s, which is hidden somewhere else. (See The Eye of Osiris and Mr. Pottermack’s Oversight.)
- pass off another person’s body as the murderer’s. The murderer substitutes his victim’s body for his own (A Silent Witness; The D’Arblay Mystery; “The Funeral Pyre”; “Pandora’s Box”; “Gleanings from the Wreckage”). For the Defence: Dr. Thorndyke (1934) offers an ironic variation: the police wrongly believe the protagonist (who has just had plastic surgery to correct his nose) is his cousin, and that he murdered himself.
- pass off one corpse as another person’s (not the murderer’s). In Dr. Thorndyke Intervenes (1933), the villain plans to use a severed head (a museum specimen) to give his victim’s corpse a false identity, thus creating an alibi for himself.
- the “victim” may fake his own death, without committing a murder. (The Mystery of Angelina Frood; “Percival Bland’s Proxy”.)
A possible ancestor is Doyle’s “Norwood Builder”, in which the villain stages his own death and uses a forged fingerprint in blood to frame an innocent man – two Freeman motifs! Other Holmes tales using the same idea – “Shoscombe Old Place” and The Valley of Fear (1914) – appeared several years after Freeman began writing.
The disposal of the corpse
Freeman’s murderers try to render the body unrecognizable or unfindable; few corpses are found on a library hearthrug, neatly skewered with an Assyrian dagger through the shoulderblades.
Methods of disposal include:
- simple burial (Dr. Thorndyke Intervenes, 1933; The Penrose Mystery, 1936)
- burning it beyond recognition, whether by cremation, quicklime, or potter’s kiln (e.g. A Silent Witness, 1914; “The Funeral Pyre”)
- pulverizing it
- dismembering it
- reducing it to skeleton
Many British writers will write stories about the disposal of the body, including Dorothy L. Sayers and Gladys Mitchell.
Scientific and legal schemes
Freeman was one of the first writers to write plots that turned on ingenious scientific or legal points.
Science-based schemes may involve:
- chemistry – “Rex v. Burnaby” (belladonna fed to rabbits); As a Thief in the Night (1928) (candles that release poisonous arsine gas)
- physics – optical illusions in “The Apparition at Burling Court” and “Phyllis Annesley’s Peril”
- gadgets – “The Aluminium Dagger” (a dagger shot from a gun); “Mr. Ponting’s Alibi” (by gramophone)
These stories are the ancestors of the science-based murder schemes in Dorothy L. Sayers (Unnatural Death, 1927, and Strong Poison, 1929); John Rhode; J.J. Connington (Mystery at Lynden Sands, 1928; The Case with Nine Solutions, 1928; Jack-in-the-Box, 1944); and John Dickson Carr (The Four False Weapons, 1937; The Man Who Could Not Shudder, 1940).
Legal plots are built around:
- survivorship. The Eye of Osiris hinges on whether a missing man is dead or not. Freeman revels in the situation’s comic aspects, basing the plot around a muddled will that defeats the testator’s intentions. SPOILER (highlight text to read) If Bellingham is buried in a certain place, his brother inherits; if he is not, then his cousin inherits. Neither can inherit until the body is buried, and the body has to be buried by the organization of the executor—but the executor cannot be determined until the body is buried! Dr. Thorndyke’s solution to the legal problem is the punch-line to a joke: Bellingham’s transformation into a mummy meets all the conditions of the clause. A similar problem occurs in Dr. Thorndyke Intervenes (1933), where Mr. Pippet ‘cannot prove his claim until death is presumed, and he cannot apply for permission to presume death until he has proved his claim’. The obvious ancestor for these works is Stevenson’s classic black comedy The Wrong Box (1889), which also revolves around a complicated legal situation (tontine), substitution of corpses, and disposal of the body.
- unusual wills. The Mystery of 31, New Inn (1912) presents a situation similar to that in Sayers’ Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (1928) and Miles Burton’s Death of Mr. Gantley (1932): the deaths of two siblings, a wealthy sister and her estranged brother. Sayers complicates the matter further with a survivorship problem: which sibling died first, and who inherits?
- claimants to estates. These include The Cat’s Eye (1923); Pontifex, Son and Thorndyke (1931); and Dr. Thorndyke Intervenes (1933), based on the Druce-Portland case. Legal complications also drive “The Stranger’s Latch-key” and “The Mysterious Visitor”.
- insurance problems. Dr. Thorndyke is medico-legal adviser to the Griffin Life Assurance Company, and is often engaged by Mr. Stalker to look into suspicious cases, such as “The Missing Mortgagee”, “Percival Bland’s Proxy”, and “The Contents of a Mare’s Nest”. Ronald Knox’s detective Miles Bredon will also be an insurance detective, while Freeman Wills Crofts, Agatha Christie (in some of her 1920s works, such as “The Tragedy at Marsdon Manor”), G.D.H. and M. Cole, and Sayers also wrote stories about insurance fraud.
The inverted detective story
The normal detective story begins with a mystery and hides the murderer’s identity until the last chapter. Freeman, always an innovator, invented the inverted detective story, which shows the solution first, and then the detective investigating the crime. The emphasis is entirely on how (how the criminal commits the crime and tries to avoid being caught, how the detective solves the crime), not on who (whodunnit?).
Freeman stated his intention in the Preface to The Singing Bone (1912), the first collection of inverted stories:
In real life, the identity of the criminal is a question of supreme importance for practical reasons; but in fiction, where no such reasons exist, I conceive the interest of the reader to be engaged chiefly by the demonstration of unexpected consequences of simple actions, of unsuspected causal connections, and by the evolution of an ordered chain of evidence from a mass of facts apparently incoherent and unrelated. The reader’s curiosity is concerned not so much with the question ‘Who did it?’ as with the question ‘How was the discovery achieved?’ That is to say, the ingenious reader is interested more in the intermediate action than in the ultimate result.
Would it be possible to write a detective story in which from the outset the reader was taken entirely into the author’s confidence, was made an actual witness of the crime and furnished with every fact that could possibly be used in its detection? Would there be any story left when the reader had all the facts? I believed that there would; and as an experiment to test the justice of my belief, I wrote ‘The Case of Oscar Brodski’. Here the usual conditions are reversed; the reader knows everything, the detective knows nothing, and the interest focuses on the unexpected significance of trivial circumstances.
Freeman followed up this experiment with two inverted novels: The Shadow of the Wolf (1925), an adaptation of “The Echo of a Mutiny”, and Mr. Pottermack’s Oversight.
Many writers in the Realist tradition also wrote inverted detective stories, including Freeman Wills Crofts (The 12.30 from Croydon, 1934; Antidote to Venom, 1938); G.D.H. and M. Cole (End of an Ancient Mariner, 1933); and Henry Wade (Diplomat’s Folly, 1951; Too Soon to Die, 1953).
Many of Freeman’s works feature what Mike Grost terms a Background: a detailed look at an institution, way of life, or activity. These include:
- arts and crafts: wax modeling and numismatics (The D’Arblay Mystery, 1926), or pottery and modern art (The Stoneware Monkey, 1938)
- archaeology: Egyptology (The Eye of Osiris, 1911), while The Penrose Mystery (1936) led to a dig at Julliberrie’s Grave in Kent
- collectors: The Cat’s Eye (1923), The Penrose Mystery
- jewellers, dealers in precious stones, and metallurgists: The Red Thumb Mark (1907), “The New Jersey Sphinx”, “A Fisher of Men”, “The Stolen Ingots”
Many of Freeman’s characters, like those of John Rhode / Miles Burton, are inventors, craftsmen, or mechanically minded. Nathaniel Polton, Dr. Thorndyke’s assistant, constructs the technical devices his employer needs, while Mr. Pottermack uses his garden workshop to make fake footprints and turn a mummy into his victim Lewson’s corpse. Freeman himself “excelled in several arts and crafts, including woodwork, painting, modelling, and bookbinding” (The Times, 1 October 1943), and sculpted the statuette that provides the frontispiece for The Stoneware Monkey.
Criticism of Freeman
As father of the pure detective story, Freeman had come by the late 20th century, a time when the classic detective story was held in contempt, to symbolize all that was wrong with the genre. Julian Symons (Bloody Murder, 1971), LeRoy Panek (Watteau’s Shepherds, 1979), Erik Routley (The Puritan Pleasures of the Detective Story, 1972), and R.F. Stewart (…And Always a Detective, 1980) dismiss him as an inferior imitator of Doyle.
One is in and out of the revolving door of Holmes’ reasoning in a flash and crying “Wonderful!” with Watson, with never a thought for valid arguments. With Freeman on the other hand, one gets stuck in the door and subjected to a dissertation.
Because he concentrates on detection, these writers claim, Freeman sacrifices storytelling upon the altar of logical purity. He is turgid. Symons quipped: “Reading a Freeman story is very much like chewing on dry straw.” Even the more sympathetic Mayo argues that they are neither well characterized nor suspenseful.
Most of these critics are, however, unfamiliar with Freeman’s work. Routley thinks Freeman wrote no novels. Panek thinks Freeman wrote only inverted stories. Symons thinks Freeman’s only inverted work was The Singing Bone – a page after praising Mr. Pottermack’s Oversight. P.D. James (Talking about Detective Fiction, 2009) seems unaware Freeman even existed, and claims there was no science in the Golden Age detective story.
Panek insists “there was a heavily anti-Thorndykean reaction in the twenties against the scientific detective tale” – even though this was the height of the Realist detective story in Britain; Freeman Wills Crofts, John Rhode, and J.J. Connington, the leading writers of the day, were all influenced by Freeman. (See Curtis Evans’ Masters of the “Humdrum” Mystery, 2012.) Panek claims that the leading writers rebelled against Freeman’s tyranny. And by leading writers, he means Anthony Berkeley (who praised The Singing Bone in his introduction to The Second Shot, 1930); Ngaio Marsh (who paid tribute to Dr. Thorndyke in her early works, and wasn’t a leading writer until at least the 1940s); and A.A. Milne (who wrote only one, weak detective story).
To complain that Freeman emphasized logic and reason misses the point; the detective story is a rational genre. The great scenes in Freeman’s work are not dramatic, but intellectual: scientific experiments or investigations of the crime scene that build up a case against the criminal; or passages of pure reasoning, in which Dr. Thorndyke analyzes the case and describes the chain of logic that led him to the solution. Such scenes, like those in the early Ellery Queen novels, are mentally exciting. As Xavier Lechard writes, these “demonstrations are positively compelling in their faultless logic. Rarely in mystery fiction has reasoning taken such a central place and been so fascinating…”
Saying Freeman is boring is also harsh. His best books succeed as fiction, as well as detective fiction. Contemporary reviews praised him for his storytelling abilities, and for his characterization. ((See, for instance, New York Times, 1 March 1925; Times Literary Supplement, 29 October 1925; Bruce Rae, New York Times; E.R. Punshon, Manchester Guardian, 29 April 1940.)
Even Raymond Chandler, a hard-boiled crime writer whose stories are the antithesis of Freeman’s, wrote:
“This man Austin Freeman is a wonderful performer. He has no equal in his genre, and he is also a much better writer than you might think, if you were superficially inclined, because in spite of the immense leisure of his writing, he accomplishes an even suspense which is quite unexpected … There is even a gaslight charm about his Victorian love affairs, and those wonderful walks across London.”
Freeman ought not to be neglected. He was an innovative writer who introduced science to the detective story, whose plot ideas influenced the next generation of detective writers, and whose best books stand up as good fiction.