The Jacob Street Mystery (Freeman)

  • By R. Austin Freeman
  • First published: UK: Hodder & Stoughton, 1942; US: Dodd Mead, 1942, as The Unconscious Witness

Freeman’s last novel, and the final appearance of the great scientific sleuth Dr. Thorndyke, lecturer in medico-legal jurisprudence. This is a minor but typical Freeman: a disappearance; vzcrefbangvba; a telltale medical oddity (ringed hair); walks through woods and Iron Age forts; the virtues of representative art and keen observation contrasted with the inanities of abstract art.

It would be unfair to call Freeman’s late work slow; “dignified” is a better term. There is a murder in the first chapter, and another in Chapter VII, but these are almost episodes in the life of a painter – a pleasant chap with a Thoreauvian passion for simplicity. Then, too, there is the odd attitude of a female acquaintance who poses as a modern artist (dreadful stuff, like the work of a talentless child). She disappears, leaving behind a corpse in her lodgings. The trail peters out. Two years later, Dr. Thorndyke is called in to consult on a presumption of death.

Jacob Street is not a particularly satisfying detective story. Like some of Freeman’s, it isn’t a whodunit at all. His concern is with proof and logical deduction rather than mystification. There are no suspects, and little investigation. It can’t be said that Dr. Thorndyke detects; he is more secretive than ever, and carries out his research behind locked doors – then presents his findings to the astonished probate court. The solution inverts that of Angelina Frood.

Thorndyke’s concern is to prove the culprit’s identity and guilt, but the whys and wherefores are all rather vague. “We shall never know the actual facts, and it is not very profitable to speculate about them,” he advises. “We don’t know, and we never shall. Nor does it really concern us. We knew enough to convict a really talented criminal, and that should satisfy us.” The average reader might be less satisfied. Why, for instance, did the murderer commit his original murder?


1942 Hodder & Stoughton

The strange disappearance of Lotta Schiller might have remained an unsolved mystery if it hadn’t been for the application to presume her death, made in the Probate Court two years later.

Dr. Thorndyke was briefed to contest it, and investigation in earnest began.  The theory to fit the crime originated in the fertile brain of Dr. Thorndyke, but the one odd fact that could put the case on the road to proof positive was the good Mr. Polton’s contribution.


Tom Pedley scarcely expected to have a murder committed before his eyes when he went into the woods for a day of sketching.  Yet that was only the beginning of a chain of startling events for the young artist and it brought the beautiful Lotta Schiller into his life – and mysteriously snatched her away again, perhaps to death.  When Dr. Thorndyke was summoned by the Probate Court to examine an application to establish her death, Pedley could not believe that she was dead.  With additional evidence supplied by Polton, the Doctor’s assistant, the crime and its extraordinary aftermath are solved by Thorndyke in the brilliantly scientific manner for which R. Austin Freeman, his creator, is internationally known.

Contemporary reviews

Books (Will Cuppy, 1st March 1942, 490w):

Speaking of mystery events, here’s the biggest one in quite some time—a brand new Dr. Thorndyke book by the veteran who has long been rightly called the foremost living writer of the scientific detective story.  Eightyish now, R. Austin Freeman wrote most of it in a bomb shelter he built himself in his garden at Gravesend, and the results appear to prove that you can’t keep a good man down.

Sat R of Lit (7th March 1942, 30w0:

Triumphant deduction; vast amount of interesting data about disguises and their penetration; bang-up puzzle.  For connoisseurs.

NY Times (Kay Irvin, 29th March 1942, 240w):

This leisurely, logical type of mystery novel makes its appeal to taste and reason; in Austin Freeman’s hands it is always—as it must be—well done.

Booklist (1st May 1942)

Times Literary Supplement (Maurice Willson Disher, 30th May 1942):

Crime for crime’s sake is rarer in detective stories than might be supposed.  Unlike most of them The Jacob Street Mystery keeps strictly to the business of creating a murder problem and solving it.  Mr. Freeman knows all the unwritten laws and abides by them.  Every fact is relevant and disclosed at the proper time and place; nothing is wilfully withheld.  Pedley the painter unknowingly and unwillingly becomes involved in the affairs of his neighbour, a grass widow who has seen the work of ultra-modern artists and been suddenly convinced that she is one of them.  Her secretive habits seem to be innocent until the murder is committed and then Pedley and her other new friends find they know nothing about her.  Mr. Freeman is a past-master of the gradual, cumulative art of mystifying.  The facts he keeps casually mentioning become a maze of criminal cunning.  At the moment of his own choosing he discloses a plan of admirable symmetry.

A Catalogue of Crime (Barzun & Taylor, 1989):

An intricate affair in which gur pevzvany xvyyf uvf jvsr va beqre gb vzcrefbangr ure naq xvyy nabgure crefba. Gur rivqrapr bs unaqjevgvat, evatrq unve, rgp., svanyyl ranoyrf Gubeaqlxr gb oevat uvz gb obbx.  The larger part of the tale is told consecutively by the author in the third person; the rest is by Jervis, so as to bring in Thorndyke and the hearing at the probate court.  Not the best Freeman. Query: Why the reported alternative title of The Jacob Street Mystery for this tale rather than for The Stoneware Monkey, which occupies more space at that address?

3 thoughts on “The Jacob Street Mystery (Freeman)

  1. I remember enjoying this one, but for the quirks and the sidelines on the past rather than the mystery. Still compared with what other authors ended up writing in their 80s this was pretty good. Out of interest what did you make of Mr Vanderpuye – I felt for its time this was intended to be a friendly portrayal.


    1. Yes, this is one of the lesser Thorndykes, but it’s not a Postern of Fate or Hungry Goblin. Pleasant reading, even if it’s the mixture as before, diluted.

      Refreshing to see a non-white character treated without racial prejudice. Vanderpuye is emotional, but he’s intelligent, and the other characters treat him as an equal. Now, if he’d been Jewish…!


  2. “Eightyish now, R. Austin Freeman wrote most of it in a bomb shelter he built himself in his garden at Gravesend,…”

    That’s some dedication! But Gravesend…what an unfortunate name.


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