The Cat’s Eye (R. Austin Freeman)


By R. Austin Freeman

First published: UK, Hodder & Stoughton, 1923; US, Dodd Mead, 1927

Blurb (US)

Freeman - Cat's Eye.jpgWhen the brother of Sir Lawrence Drayton, the famous chancery lawyer, was found brutally murdered, the motive of robbery was not difficult to sustain.  For the dead man had been a collector of unusual stones and oddments of jewellery, several of which were missing after the murder.  Among them was an antique pendant, the “cat’s eye” which, until its disappearance in the days of Jacobean strife, had been a family heirloom and charm.

From this tragedy, perhaps distinguishable from many others only by its unusual brutality, and from various seemingly unrelated happenings, Dr. Thorndyke, the famous detective-physician, unearths a strange story of deception ad crime which will startle the reader with its ingenuity ad cruelty.  “Dr. Thorndyke,” writes a reviewer of one of Mr. Freeman’s preceding stories, “is perhaps the most interesting creation of a super-detective in recent years.  He has a good share of Sherlock Holmes’ astuteness, without his pretentiousness.”

My review

One of Freeman’s most romantic tales, involving a pendant whose possession is supposed to prove ownership of the family estates, and which has been lost since the Jacobite rebellion.

The discovery of the pendant, by means of an enigmatic series of Bible verses inscribed in a locket, leads to the triumphant restoration of the heir.

This strand of romanticism is completely alien to Crofts and Wade, but is present in Street and Sayers, and probably comes from Doyle (“The Musgrave Ritual”).

For the rest, this is good standard Thorndyke, with excellent detection at the crime scene, including a reconstruction of the crime from fingerprints and footprints; some fascinating tests for arsenic (Reinsch’s and Marsh’s)—Freeman seems to think that poisoned chocolates are a novel device (Prologue); and the identification of a suspect as an Australian by an echidna bone mascot (echidnas are “peculiar to Tasmania and Australia”).

The solution is much less elaborate than Freeman at his best.  As is often the case with Freeman, this isn’t structured as a straightforward detective story with a closed circle of suspects.  This is one of those Realist stories where the villain is obvious from the middle, and is the only real suspect.

SPOILER (highlight to read)

The book opens with the murder, committed by two men; the criminals attempt to conceal crimes, and, in so doing, give themselves away (didn’t Sayers complain about this?), by trying to kill the heroine (twice) and Thorndyke and Anstey in a lethal chamber, in which they themselves are caught, like Grimesby Roylott.

  • The ancestor of early John Rhodes like The Ellerby Case.
  • One of Freeman’s charming Edwardian romances—Ch. 17.
  • Historical treasure hunt, and some good C18th pastiche.  Cryptic message to treasure found in Sayers (“Uncle Meleager’s Will”, The Nine Tailors), Bailey (“The German Song”, “The Violet Farm”, The Bishop’s Crime), Rhode (The Bloody Tower), Connington (The Dangerfield Talisman), Carr (Hag’s Nook), Christie (“The Missing Will”, “The Clergyman’s Daughter”, “Strange Jest”) and Penny (Policeman’s Evidence).  Obvious ancestor: Doyle’s “Musgrave Ritual”.
  • Forged fingerprints: The Red Thumbmark.
  • Legitimacy of heir: Dr. Thorndyke Intervenes.
  • Heroine is an artist; victim is a jewel collector.  C.f. sculptors / wax modellers in D’Arblay Mystery and Stoneware Monkey.
  • Miss Blake lives in Jacob Street—setting of Stoneware Monkey and (of course) Jacob Street Mystery.
  • P. 99: Miss Blake used to board with Polton’s sister, and Anstey knows victim’s brother.  Although London is huge, everybody is somehow connected—goes back to Dickens?

Contemporary reviews

Times Literary Supplement (11th October 1923):

Another carefully constructed and well-written story in the vein that Mr. Austin Freeman has made his own.  Dr. Thorndyke and his accomplished satellite, the every ready Polton, are once more seen at their best unravelling a puzzle and scoring off the police by combined science and mechanical skill.  One small clue is picked up after another and wrought into a chain, which leads with unerring accuracy to the unmasking of a most ingenious impostor, murderer, and thief.  In the course of the story, in which there is considerable excitement, the author has another little turn at his favourite subject of the official belief in the infallibility of finger-prints.  The police arrest one Moakey, who is well known to them, for the crime committed at the opening of the story, on the strength of the finger-prints found, which convict him ten times over; but they suddenly drop the case against him without any explanation, until it comes out that he was in gaol at the time, an alibi strong enough to demolish the evidence even of finger-prints.  Mr. Freeman’s stories are not only good as such, but they have a distinct medico-legal value.


Books (NY Herald Tribune) (Will Cuppy, 28th August 1927, 120w):

The author’s secret is well-kept, his ratiocination is sound and his style is agreeable.


NY Times (4th September 1927, 140w):

The Cat’s Eye is a well-constructed mystery yarn, with enough thrills to satisfy the most exacting.


NY World (4th September 1927, 130w):

In mastering his problem, Thorndyke has never worked more swiftly, unerringly and fascinatingly.


NY Evening Post (R.A. Simon, 10th September 1927, 200w):

Jervis, narrator of previous Thorndike [sic] adventures, has been replaced by one Anstey, who is not so concise as his predecessor and who also introduces a great deal of extraneous love interest.  Nor has he a strikingly good tale to tell.  The Cat’s Eye is a weak link in an otherwise admirable series.