Dr. Thorndyke Intervenes (R. Austin Freeman)

By R. Austin Freeman

First published: UK, Hodder & Stoughton, 1933; USA, Dodd Mead, 1933

Blurb (US)

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

In Dr. Thorndyke Intervenes, the famous medico-legal sleuth unravels one of the most intricate and thrilling cases of his entire career.  It all started in a comparatively innocuous manner.  Mr. Christopher Pippet, an American gentleman, is bringing suit to presume the death of the Earl of Winsborough, to whose title and estates he claims to be heir presumptive.  But Mr. Pippet is unfortunate in his choice of a legal adviser and falls into the hands of a shady lawyer who tries to fake the evidence and thereby exposes himself to a criminal charge.  Dr. Thorndyke is consulted.  He suspects the lawyer’s intentions, but finds more than he expected.  He is looking for a fraud, and not only detects this, but also discovers a clue to a notorious robbery, and later, to a mysterious murder.  Meanwhile, the peerage claim is settled; but, afterward, there is a further and more thrilling surprise for the reader.

R. Austin Freeman, unquestionably one of the best and most popular present-day detective story writers, has here achieved one of his very finest plots.  Dominated by the genial personality of Dr. Thorndyke, it moves swiftly and surely, becoming always increasingly dramatic until it reaches the final astonishing dénouement.

My review

Odd book. Many very good parts, but the parts that are most disappointing are also the most interesting (Thorndyke’s reconstruction of the crime, Bunter’s account of the crime, the identity of the head in the case). What is disappointing, in effect, is that Dr. Thorndyke knows everything and reconstructed it halfway- to three-quarters through the book, so that the dénouement was merely proof-gathering. Thorndyke’s exposition of the fraud is also a very good scene. Falls down due to continual anti-climax.

(Me, aet. 15)

Contemporary reviews

Sunday Times (Dorothy L. Sayers, 22nd October 1933):

Dr. Freeman occupies a unique position in the history of detective fiction.  He has done more than any single writer to destroy the old, casual, anything-will-do-in-a-thriller tradition.  He has taught the reader to be critical and the author to be careful.  It is not too much to say that it is the ambition of every mystery-writer to do his scientific stuff so that Dr. Freeman might approve it.  And in taking the scientific stuff seriously, Dr. Freeman opened up a new field of interest which nobody has ever explored so thoroughly as he.  He can get as much excitement out of the melting-point of platinum as a lesser man can get out of a whole bushel of death-rays—with the additional advantage that we do believe in platinum, whereas we seldom believe in death-rays.

In Dr. Thorndyke Intervenes, he has taken as a basis the famous historical case of the Druce claim to the Portland title, which so astonished the ’nineties, and has worked out this theme with many intriguing twists and ramifications.  Into it, as by a jig-saw, he has fitted a second ingenious and complicated problem.

The juxtaposition of the two plots is due to a coincidence, but the coincidence is reasonably accounted for.  (The minor coincidence by which the parties to the two problems are dramatically brought together at the start is less legitimate, but does not affect the story.)  The love-element (always the weakest part of a Freeman novel) has been properly tucked away into a corner where it does nobody any harm, and provides a modest but necessary link in the action.  In short, this is a first-class “Thorndyke”, and one cannot give it higher praise.  Nobody can touch the great Doctor for the callous charm with which he handles a corpse, nor for the cool self-possession with which he leaves criminals to tumble into scientific traps of their own setting.  He is becoming, perhaps, a little too much addicted to the analysis of dust and the examination of dene-holes, but there is always some fresh cloud of witnesses arising from the dust, and some grisly and anything-but-fresh body of evidence to come grinning up over the edge of the dene-hole.  Have at it, my masters!  You may be baffled by the platinum, but you will kick yourselves if you don’t guess right about the coffin-screws!


New Statesman (O.M., 28th October 1933):

Having consumed the entrée and the game soup from Glengyle (fish was lacking), Cerberus comes to the joint.  Here complete satisfaction is guaranteed.  Dr. Thorndyke intervenes in a wonderful tangle of bodiless heads, substituted coffins, a peerage claim resting upon quaint tradition, and a platinum robbery, linking up these heterogenous elements by masterly analyses and providing each with a sufficiently credible setting.  His methods engender in the reader a lust for examining the entrails of ships and the dust of ancient graveyards.  It should be said in our defence, as we hobble incompetently in his wake, that Dr. Thorndyke had the police in his pocket.  There is no end to the questions one would like to ask this eminent expert; the most pertinent would give the show away, but these are fair ones: how did X decoy Y to the fatal dene-hole?  Might not Y’s head have been removed in the wrong manner?  And what happened to poor Buffham?  It does seem a pity to drop a hopeful crook like this clean out of the story.


Times Literary Supplement (9th November 1933):

Cloak-room attendants at the larger railway stations must be accustomed to the undertaking of some curious charges, and so the finding of a human head, and a particularly hideous one at that, might not prove quite such a shock to these phlegmatic individuals as to other persons when the lid of a box that had been duplicated for one containing so many thousand pounds’ worth of platinum was unscrewed.  At the moment of this unpleasant revelation two strangers happened to be present—one a wealthy American who had come to England to establish a claim to a peerage, and the other an Englishman who determined to exploit the American to his own advantage.  Meanwhile the gentlemen who had asked for the box to be opened to see whether it contained his property or not (the label was in different hand-writing) had disappeared on the pretence of fetching a policeman.  There was a Coroner’s Court, and it was not long before the redoubtable Dr. Thorndyke was taking an interest in the case.  It is to be felt that there might be some more action in the book and that Dr. Thorndyke’s intellectual superiority is slightly oppressive.


Observer (H.C. O’Neill, 14th January 1934):

It was, however, Austin Freeman who first made ingenious use of the inverted detective story.  Inversion plays no part in his present novel, which proceeds on the old lines his admirers know and appreciate so highly.  Thorndyke and Miller appear once again, and when the curtain falls all is as tidily explained as usual.  There are no loose ends, and the satisfaction is complete.  It is a long novel, but Austin Freeman can never be too long, and all the reader will wish to know is that the clever spellbinder has lost none of his cunning.


Spectator (Sylvia Norman, 3rd November 1933, 160w):

It is enough to say that Thorndyke’s latest case concerns an inheritance, the contents of a coffin, and a head found in a wooden box in a station cloakroom; also that his solution is as clever and as technical as it need be.


Sat R of Lit (4th November 1933, 40w):

Very good.  Usual Freeman double-plotting weakened by coincidences, but Dr. Thorndyke is at his best.  Don’t fall for obvious clues.


Books (Will Cuppy, 5th November 1933, 320w):

If baffled you would be—by an expert, we mean—try this one.  R. Austin Freeman, as you doubtless know, can be depended upon in a pinch.  He’s what is called, in the mystery racket, a living classic, and surely you don’t skip the classics.



NY Times (Isaac Anderson, 12th November 1933, 230w):

This is one of the most ingenious puzzles that Dr. Thorndyke has ever solved.  A good rule for detective story fans is never to pass up anything written by R. Austin Freeman.