First published: UK, Hodder & Stoughton, 1928; US, Dodd Mead, 1928
This new, full-length Dr. Thorndyke story deals with a subject seldom touched on in R. Austin Freeman’s earlier books – the difficult and subtle crime of the poisoner. A woman, summoned to her house, arrives to find her husband dead. At first, the death is assumed to be natural. The inquest, however, shows that the deceased was poisoned; but no clue whatever is found to the identity of the poisoner.
At this point, Dr. Thorndyke enters the case, and the story is thereafter concerned with the emergence of various items of obscure and contradictory evidence which Dr. Thorndyke turns to a surprising end. As a Thief in the Night is recommended as the finest story yet written by an author who is rapidly becoming the most highly rated writer of the scientific detective story in the world.
One of Freeman’s three or four best, although not one of his best-known books. The crime is modelled on the Maybrick case: murder of a chronic invalid by arsenic poisoning suspected by his brother, with suspicion falling on his wife. Narrated by Rupert Mayfield, once engaged to the victim’s dead sister-in-law, Stella Keene, and now unsure whether he loves the victim’s wife or the ward. Characterisation superior to other Freemans, even the drug-addicted and neurotic secretary, while the murderer is a superb portrait of obsession. Science, as usual, fascinating, especially the midnight exhumation and autopsy.
Times Literary Supplement (29th November 1928):
As the poor man had been a confirmed invalid for years and the doctor who has been attending him has certified that he has died of a multiplicity of ailments no one except his brother is surprised by the news of his death, and everyone is astonished when the coroner insists on holding an inquest. Dr. Thorndyke is retained to clear up the doubt and set at rest the suspicions which gather around various members of the family. He soon finds that a very clever and careful criminal has been at work, fine in murdering the victim and concealing the trail in the process, a slow one, and afterwards in diverting suspicion into other channels. By means of close and detailed work Thorndyke first establishes the ingenious “how” of the crime, and then, by skilful back-trailing in which even soot has to be analysed, establishes the all-important “who” in the case. 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.
Outlook (W.R. Brooks, 17th October 1928, 100w):
Dr. Thorndyke, with a minimum of waste cerebration, solves the mystery of one of the most ingenious and unusual crimes we ever heard of. His theories are amazingly clever and absolutely watertight.
NY Times (21st October 1928, 150w):
Were it not that the author is a physician, one might be inclined to doubt that the murders in this story could have been accomplished in the way he describes. Granting the possibility of the method described, no one but a physician who is at the same time an extraordinarily clever detective could ever have solved the mystery. Dr. Thorndyke fulfils both these requirements.