A Certain Dr. Thorndyke (R. Austin Freeman)

By R. Austin Freeman

First published: UK, Hodder & Stoughton, 1927; USA, Dodd Mead, 1928

Blurb (US)

Freeman - A Certain Dr Thorndyke.jpg
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

Here is a new detective story in which Dr. Thorndyke, the famous medico-detective, plays the leading role.  In the opening chapters, a fugitive from justice is fleeing, disguised, along the African coast – the scene, incidentally, of several years of the author’s own life.  Varied adventures befall the culprit – even in this distant and unfrequented land, the long arm of British justice is reaching for him.

Meanwhile, in London, the patience and skill of Dr. Thorndyke have been drafted into the solving of a robbery in which more than one man’s guilt or innocence is involved.  The reader will be fascinated by the deliberate and undeviating progress of the quiet, studious Dr. Thorndyke as, with surprising accuracy, he follows deduction with deduction.  And the closing scenes of the story will be satisfactory, indeed, with justice, however tardy, outwitting criminal skill.

Willard Huntington Wright, in his recently published anthology, “The Great Detective Stories”, makes the following comment on R. Austin Freeman and his medico-detective, Dr. Thorndyke:

“In R. Austin Freeman’s Dr. Thorndyke, the purely scientific detective made his appearance.  So original are his problems, so cleverly and clearly does he reach his solutions and so well written are Dr. Freeman’s records, that the Thorndyke books rank among the very best in modern detective fiction—Of all the scientific detecives, Dr. Thorndyke is unquestionably the most convincing.”

My review

A bit of an odd book—a Boys’ Own adventure of derring-do, mutineers, gun-running and native rebellion in the Gold Coast Colony (= Ghana, where Freeman served as doctor before being invalided home with blackwater fever), and a routine reworking of The Red Thumb Mark (theft, not murder, of jewels in a locked safe; framing of an innocent man; wax impressions, all of which have the same defect), linked fairly tenuously by the character of John Omond, the self-sacrificing, honourable, wrongly accused but eventually triumphantly vindicated hero of Victorian fiction.  This is 1897, after all.

·        West Africa—based on experiences as colonial doctor (Travels in Ashanti and Jaman).  Place where white men go to escape from past crimes, and ruin themselves with drink—Conrad.  Larkom dies of blackwater fever—which Freeman contracted.  Patronising attitude towards Africans.

·        Almost an impossible crime: how were gems stolen from sealed boxes, unless by their owner?

·        Hollis and Wampole are both collectors.

·        Examination of dust from boxes—castings of a wood-boring beetle.

·        Sea story: very popular genre in 1920s—John Rhode, E.R. Punshon and Douglas G. Browne all wrote some—and H.C. Bailey?

·        Chapter 5: a very Freemanian romance—falling in love over trigonometry lessons!

·        X hit by lorry and killed.  Did he deserve this?  Only a thief, not a murderer.

·        Murderless story.

Contemporary reviews

Times Literary Supplement (10th November 1927):

The reader, already acquainted with the nature of Dr. Thorndyke’s activities as recorded in more than a dozen previously published volumes, will, on beginning this, be rather puzzled.  The scene is laid in West Africa and on the waters of the Bight of Benin, and as the story develops it becomes more and more a romance of love and adventure.  What can the precise and painstaking expert in medical jurisprudence have to do with a drunken white trader, with a kidnapping and mutiny, piracy on the high seas, shipwreck, gun-running, and warfare in the bush?  A rattling good story, full of excitement, rich in careful and continuing local colour,  and provided with some very pretty love-making under unusual conditions is no setting for Dr. Thorndyke.  But all this is only Mr. Freeman’s artfulness.  Thorndyke is quietly biding his time in King’s Bench Walk, and when at the end of 170 pages the poor hero and heroine find themselves in an impossible position on the Gold Coast, with only the hero’s mysterious past between them and happiness, the author unleashes him.  Thereafter there is a change of scene.  There are no more rifle shots, no more booming breakers, but instead the fascinating spectacle of Dr. Thorndyke assiduously at work on clues so slender as to make it seem almost impossible that anything can be proved for or against anybody.


NY Evening Post (H.E.D., 25th February 1928, 80w):

The detective story is all right.  The doctor really is scientific, and the crime might really have occurred.  As for the romance, some of Osmond’s exploits are moderately exciting, but when it comes to love, Mr. Freeman is out of his element.


Books (NY Herald Tribune) (Will Cuppy, 26th February 1928, 130w):

One of Mr. Freeman’s best, which is saying much.


Boston Transcript (10th March 1928, 320w):

There is an odd charm about the Freeman detective stories.  They are serious and careful, with topics neatly defined, and motives carefully explained.  There is a Victorian flavour about them, at variance with the present-day slip-shod tales of blood and mystery.


Springfield Republican (29th April 1928, 100w):

Mr. Freeman deals generously with the buyers of his book.  He gives them a satisfactory yarn coming and going.