Dr. Thorndyke’s Casebook (R. Austin Freeman)

By R. Austin Freeman

First published: UK, Hodder & Stoughton, 1923; US, Dodd Mead, 1924, as The Blue Scarab

Blurb (US)

Freeman - Dr Thorndyke's Casebook.jpgMr. Freeman has broken new ground in detective fiction.  Instead of concealing the criminal, he begins by showing him actually at work, thereby taking the reader into his cofidece.  Then follows the solution by the master detective, Thorndyke, who is well-known to readers of The Singing Bone and other stories by the author.  The reader is on the inside, as it were, at the very beginning, sees the development of the crime, and finally how the criminal is surely snared in the trap of his own making.

My review

Unlike the casebook of his illustrious older brother, Sherlock Holmes, Dr Thorndyke’s casebook is a strong collection. In these seven stories the lecturer in medical jurisprudence, accompanied by his chronicler Dr. Jervis, investigates a series of problems. 

As always, the detection is as interesting as the solution, as Thorndyke uses his knowledge of medical conditions, hieroglyphs, dust particles, natural history, and the specific gravity of metal to solve seven ingenious cases.

Of the three murders, the last, “The Funeral Pyre”, is the best.  The plot has a body in a hayrick identified by its false teeth (c.f. Sayers’ In the Teeth of the Evidence, Bailey’s  Dead Man’s Effects, and the Coles’Superintendent Wilson’s Holiday, which also concerns vanishing businessmen on the coast and a confusion of footprints).  The  clue of a clean dental plate and clay pipes is really good.

“The Case of the White Footprints” involves a murderer without any little toes, which Dr Jervis puts down to ergotism or frost bite – Thorndyke realises that it is a symptom of an obscure disease (ainhum) and hence identifies the criminal.

The weakest is certainly “The New Jersey Sphinx”, which features one of Freeman’s murderers with thyroid problems who rushes around trying to incriminate and impersonate others, even though unaware that Thorndyke is on his trail.

The other four tales all concern thefts – of “The Blue Scarab”, which, like Poe’s “Gold Bug”, holds the key to a buried treasure and an old skeleton; of a will in “The Touchstone”; a necklace in “A Fisher of Men” and, in the dullest of the lot, “The Stolen Ingots”.

Contemporary reviews

Times Literary Supplement (10th May 1923):

Another collection of stories telling the detective masterpieces of the great scientific investigator of crime who is familiar to Mr. Freeman’s readers.


NY Times (20th January 1924, 500w):

They are clever, interesting and well told.


NY Tribune (Isabel Paterson, 27th January 1924, 390w):

These are exceptionally clever puzzles.


Boston Transcript (30th January 1924, 210w):

He gives us no false clues.  He never pads a story in order to make an extremely moderate thrill seem an exciting one.  Whenever he draws a character it is truly that, rarely a type.  Altogether this new volume is a success and all lovers of good detective fiction will be rewarded by reading it.