A Silent Witness (R. Austin Freeman)

By R. Austin Freeman

First published: UK, Hodder & Stoughton, 1914; USA, Dodd, Mead, 1915

Blurb (1929 US reprint)

Freeman - Silent Witness US 1929 reprint.JPG
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

Hurrying along a lonely road on a rainy night, Dr. Jervis, a young medical student and practitioner, discovers the body of a man, apparently dead, lying partly concealed in the hedgerow.  He hurries off to summon the nearest constable and together they return to the spot, only to find that the body is gone.  Jervis makes a few inquiries, but they lead nowhere and the incident is forgotten.

Yet from that night the young doctor is a marked man, stalked by an unseen enemy of fiendish cunning.  Innocent of any crime and without suspicion as to who this malicious and invisible enemy may be, Jervis is an easy prey and several times escapes death only by the narrowest margin.  Finally Dr. Thorndyke, senior associate of Jervis, seriously attacks the problem and the battle of wits is on.  On several occasions the criminal gains the upper hand, and Thorndyke is forced to extreme measures and the furthest extension of his powers before his vicious mysterious adversary is outplayed.

A Silent Witness has been somewhat changed from the form in which it originally appeared several years ago.  It belongs to that group of stories of which no less an authority than S.S. Van Dine has said: “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 of modern detective fiction.”

My review

This fourth exploit of Dr. Thorndyke, the last published between the outbreak of war in 1914 and 1922, is steadfastly entertaining in its account of the doings of a mutton-headed and rather impetuous young medico, very much a template for John Dickson Carr’s heroes, who stumbles upon disappearing corpses on Hampstead Heath and patients who die under mysterious circumstances in Jacob Street, and is nearly murdered for his troubles. Despite the melodrama typical of the period and the extraordinary coincidences, many scenes are excellent, with just the right amount of the picturesque to suggest that touch of “Baghdad-on-Thames” common to Stevenson and Carr. Where the book suffers is by comparison to the later D’Arblay Mystery, which reuses the plot to greater effect. There are two surprising errors, the first on mirrors (p. 147 of the Stratus edition), and it does not stand to reason that only a professional criminal would wear gloves; by 1925, most readers were fully acquainted with the concept of fingerprints.

Contemporary reviews

Pub W (M.A. Hopkins, 17th April 1915, 500w):

There’s something queer about this book.  Something queer beyond the ordinary, advertised queerness of detective stories.


Cleveland (May 1915, 20w):

A detective story of some merit and more interest.


NY Times (2nd May 1915, 160w):

An unusually clever and interesting detective novel, although somewhat wordy in the telling.


Boston Transcript (22nd May 1915, 270w):

The well-constructed plot is strengthened by scientific facts of novel interest.


Dial (10th June 1915, 100w):

To be highly recommended.