For the Defence: Dr. Thorndyke (R. Austin Freeman)

By R. Austin Freeman

First published: UK, Hodder & Stoughton, 1934; USA, Dodd Mead, 1934

Blurb (US)

Freeman - For the Defence.jpgBased on an unusual, but at the same time, extremely likely situation, this latest Dr. Thorndyke story is of exceptional interest.  It is, in effect, a study of the cumulative effects of misleading circumstances.

The hero, Andrew Barton, an artist of irreproachable character, falls under suspicion of having committed a serious crime.  In his panic, he seeks to sink his identity by a disguise, and succeeds so well that he finds himself saddled with the personality of a disreputable cousin who is supposed to have disappeared.  Of this man’s past he knows nothing; but its lurid character soon becomes evident as its consequences develop and fall upon him.  And still he is unable to proclaim his real identity, until he finds himself in the dock at the Old Bailey, charged with murder.

Freeman - For the Defence US.JPG
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

At this point he seeks the assistance of Dr. Thorndyke, who, acting in the unusual rôle of Counsel for the Defence, proceeds to unravel the tangled skein.  Swiftly and surely he brings the case to a conclusion, ingenious in the extreme and a complete surprise to the reader.

Of all the hardy perennials of detective fiction, none is more unfailingly popular than Dr. Thorndyke.  One has the feeling that if all the great fictional detectives were collected about one conference table, Dr. Thorndyke would inevitably be the presiding officer.  For he combines with all other qualities a genial dignity which elicits a respect that cannot be challenged.

My review

A decidedly uneven work, which falls into two sections markedly disparate in quality. The first concerns the adventures of Andrew Barton, whose inferiority complex, stemming from a broken nose, ultimately causes him to fall into a very nasty dilemma: if he proves he is Andrew, he will be arrested for one murder; if he doesn’t, he will be hanged as his cousin for his own murder. It has been said that tragedy is only comedy gone wrong, and the bones of the story are not too dissimilar from those of a Wodehouse novel. Unfortunately, the second half is rather flat. While there is, of course, nothing to complain about in Thorndyke’s reconstruction of the facts, it is very anti-climactic; there is never any doubt that Andrew will be acquitted, so suspense and tension are lost.

Contemporary reviews

Times Literary Supplement (6th December 1934):

The plot turns on a complicated case of mistaken identity.  Two cousins are extremely like each other apart from their noses.  But one of the cousins, whose nose has been badly broken, has it restored by an ingenious process, which makes him exactly like the other cousin.  The other cousin is then accidentally killed and his body mutilated; the former cousin disappears and finds himself mistaken for the dead man and arrested for the murder of himself.  In these trying circumstances Dr. Thorndyke is called for the defence and succeeds in proving the defendant’s story, which has many more complications than are here described.  It is a particularly neat and ingenious plot and gives Dr. Thorndyke many opportunities to indulge his taste for scientific experiment, but it is surprising that Mr. Freeman should have chosen to tell it as an inverted detective story: if it had been told the ordinary way round it would have made a remarkable puzzle.  Even as it is it makes an exciting tale and the wealth of detail serves to give it a plausibility which the bare outline might not suggest.


Sat R (10th November 1934, 50w):

Dr. Thorndyke straightens out the puzzle.  Mr. Freeman, as usual, tells his tale very convincingly.


Sat R of Lit (17th November 1934, 40w):



NY Times (Isaac Anderson, 18th November 1934, 240w):

The story is told with all the skill that Mr. Freeman has at his command, and that is a great deal more than is possessed by most writers of detective fiction.