R. Austin Freeman

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Born: 11 April 1862, Marylebone, UK

Died: 28 September 1943, Gravesend, UK

Assistant Colonial Surgeon, Accra, Gold Coast (now Ghana): 1887–91; Assistant Medical Officer, Holloway Prison, 1900; Port of London Authority physician.

Detective: Dr. John Thorndyke


R. Austin Freeman, a doctor, created the first truly scientific detective: Dr. John Evelyn Thorndyke, lecturer in medical jurisprudence.

He also invented the inverted detective story, where the reader first sees the criminal commit the crime and cover his tracks, and then how the detective solves the case.

Freeman’s work is distinguished by its accuracy and attention to detail. Some critics (Julian Symons, for one) have complained that reading Freeman is like “chewing on dry straw”, but Freeman’s work, at its best, is both ingenious and charming.

Freeman’s best works include:

  • The Eye of Osiris (1911), about a vanishing Egyptologist
  • The Singing Bone (1912), the first collection of inverted detective stories
  • The Mystery of Angelina Frood (1924), a humorous story and a tribute to Dickens
  • The D’Arblay Mystery (1926), about a forger and a murdered wax modeller
  • As a Thief in the Night (1928), an ingenious story of arsenical poisoning, with fine characterization
  • Mr. Pottermack’s Oversight (1930), a classic inverted novel about an old lag who disposes of a blackmailer

Works

  1. The Red Thumbmark (1907; Dr. Thorndyke)
  2. John Thorndyke’s Cases (1909; in America, Thorndyke’s Cases; short stories)
  3. The Eye of Osiris (1911; in America, The Vanishing Man; Dr. Thorndyke)
  4. The Singing Bone (1912; in America, The Adventures of Dr. Thorndyke; short stories)
  5. The Mystery of 31, New Inn (1912; Dr. Thorndyke)
  6. A Silent Witness (1914; Dr. Thorndyke)
  7. The Uttermost Farthing (1914; in America, A Savant’s Vendetta)
  8. The Exploits of Danby Croker (1916)
  9. The Great Portrait Mystery (1918; short stories)
  10. Helen Vardon’s Confession (1922; Dr. Thorndyke)
  11. Dr. Thorndyke’s Case-book (1923; in America, The Blue Scarab; short stories)
  12. The Cat’s Eye (1923; Dr. Thorndyke)
  13. The Mystery of Angelina Frood (1924; Dr. Thorndyke)
  14. The Puzzle Lock (1925; Dr. Thorndyke short stories)
  15. The Shadow of the Wolf (1925; Dr. Thorndyke)
  16. The D’Arblay Mystery (1926; Dr. Thorndyke)
  17. The Magic Casket (1927; Dr. Thorndyke short stories)
  18. The Surprising Experiences of Mr. Shuttlebury Cobb (1927)
  19. A Certain Dr. Thorndyke (1927)
  20. Flighty Phyllis (1928)
  21. As a Thief in the Night (1928; Dr. Thorndyke)
  22. Mr. Pottermack’s Oversight (1930; Dr. Thorndyke)
  23. Pontifex, Son and Thorndyke (1931)
  24. When Rogues Fall Out (1932; in America, Thorndyke’s Discovery)
  25. Dr. Thorndyke Intervenes (1933)
  26. For the Defence: Dr. Thorndyke (1934)
  27. The Penrose Mystery (1936; Dr. Thorndyke)
  28. Felo de Se? (1937; in America, Death at the Inn; Dr. Thorndyke)
  29. The Stoneware Monkey (1938; Dr. Thorndyke)
  30. Mr. Polton Explains (1940; Dr. Thorndyke)
  31. The Jacob Street Mystery (1942; in America, The Unconscious Witness; Dr. Thorndyke)

Short story collections as Clifford Ashdown (co-written with J.J. Pitcairn)

  1. The Adventures of Romney Pringle (1902)
  2. The Further Adventures of Romney Pringle (1969)
  3. From a Surgeon’s Diary (1975)

Recommended reading:

  • Norman Donaldson. In Search of Dr. Thorndyke: The Story of R. Austin Freeman’s Great Scientific Investigator and His Creator.  Bowling Green, Ohio, Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1971.
  • Michael E. Grost.  ‘R. Austin Freeman.’
  • Oliver Mayo.  R. Austin Freeman: The Anthropologist at Large.  Hawthorndene, South Australia: Investigator Press, 1980.

They say…

His famous character DR. THORNDYKE has been described as “THE ACE OF DETECTIVES”—“THE PRINCE OF INVESTIGATORS.”

Dr Watson, in the Manchester Evening Chronicle:

Nowadays 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.  I can give it by saying one name

Austin Freeman

It took time to overcome prejudice but by 1920 or 1921 it is not too much to say that THE RED THUMB MARK – JOHN THORNDYKE’S CASES – THE EYE OF OSIRIS – A SILENT WITNESS – THE SINGING BONE – THE MYSTERY OF 31 NEW INN had for the first time made highly educated people take the detective story seriously

They impressed first by their scientific knowledge – The ‘science’ of the thriller had for long been a stock University joke.  It meant mysterious rays and waves, unknown gases and poisons.  Now amazed University readers found an author evidently familiar with modern scientific technique and with obvious practical experience of the application of medical knowledge to crime

But this was not all

Dr. Freeman’s detective stories were logical problems.  Nothing was guessed, everything deduced.  And the interest was in the deductions even more than in the solution.  In its way ‘The Singing Bone’ is the most remarkable book of detective stories ever published, because, in four of its five tales, the solution is given first and then the way it was deduced.

AS A THIEF IN THE NIGHT is the latest story of Dr. Thorndyke, the ace of detectives.—“Mr. Freeman has devised one of the cleverest murders in fiction and hid it so successfully that only his own Dr. Thorndyke could have been able to expose the method and the perpetrator.”—Times Literary SupplementA CERTAIN DR. THORNDYKE “is a rattling good story.”—Times.  “The Doctor, in the brilliancy of his deductive methods, has become a serious rival of Sherlock Holmes.”—Daily Mail.  “In opening THE MAGIC CASKET the reader will find it to be full of Dr. Thorndyke’s beneficent elucidatory activities…which would have won the enthusiastic admiration of Holmes.”—Times.  “Mr. Austin Freeman has never given his Dr. Thorndyke a more difficult problem to solve than the one propounded in THE D’ARBLAY MYSTERY.  Thorndyke is as industrious, masterly and successful as ever.”—Daily News.  “The hero of his THE MYSTERY OF 31, NEW INN…is a real flesh and blood creation, and his ingenious methods entitle him to a place alongside Sherlock Holmes and similar celebrities…”—Scotsman.  “R. Austin Freeman’s Dr. Thorndyke is now almost as well known as Sherlock Holmes, so there should be a demand for the new collection of stories, DR. THORNDYKE’S CASE BOOK.”—Glasgow CitizenTHE EYE OF OSIRIS “is an exceptional crime story.  We spend more praise upon this novel than 99 per cent. of its class of story deserve.”—Outlook.  In THE SINGING BONE “Thorndyke once more discloses his success as a scientific investigator.  The leading stories are constructed in an original way, brilliantly written.”—Dundee Advertiser.  “In THE GREAT PORTRAIT MYSTERY Mr. Freeman has written some of the most ingenious detective stories.  Nobody surpasses him in the collaboration and perfection of his work.”—British WeeklyTHE PUZZLE LOCK is “another collection of admirable stories about the achievements of the learned and ever observant Thorndyke.”—Times.  “It will be enough for many readers to know that Dr. Thorndyke figures in this book, HELEN VARDON’S CONFESSION, for that brilliant creation of Mr. Austin Freeman’s brain has made innumerable friends…it is not a page too long.”—Times.  “THE RED THUMB MARK is a thoroughly good story…a new experience and real enjoyment for the reader.  But one cannot breathe a hint of the detective secret without ruining the secrecy.”—Morning Post.  “THE CAT’S EYE is well-constructed; the mystery of the tantalising sort that seems always about to be cleared up, and yet remains elusive to the last page…an excellent piece of work.”—Birmingham PostTHE MYSTERY OF ANGELINA FROOD “is one of the very best things Mr. Freeman has done…to pursue one’s acquaintance with Dr. John Thorndyke, the first gentleman in detective fiction, is always delightful.  As a pioneer the great Holmes must always be held in respect; but the plain truth is that Dr. Thorndyke leaves him standing still.”—Daily TelegraphTHE SHADOW OF THE WOLF “is an amazing piece of work.”—Daily Chronicle.  “Mr. Freeman is a recognised master of mystery…  The method he employs is unusual but very effective.”—Spectator.