The Penrose Mystery (R. Austin Freeman)

By R. Austin Freeman

First published: UK, Hodder & Stoughton, 1936; USA, Dodd, Mead, 1936


Freeman - Penrose.jpgThe story is concerned with the mysterious disappearance of Daniel Penrose, a well-to-do collector of antiquities.  It opens with an account of Penrose, his habits, his eccentricities, and his curious collection.  Then he disappears, and, after some months, as his absence occasions serious complications in the administration of the estate of his father (who has died after the disappearance), the lawyers apply to Thorndyke to ascertain his whereabouts.

It appears that Penrose had fled in a panic after killing a woman with his car in circumstances that resulted in a verdict of manslaughter, and the police can trace him only for a short distance.  Thorndyke takes up the case, and, forming a theory of his own, collects fresh evidence which at length leads him to a startling discovery involving an unsuspected crime, and the investigation of this results in a complete solution of the mystery.

My review

Penrose, a collector “possessed by an insatiable acquisitiveness” and a singular ignorance of his possessions, and whose exasperating facetious “conversation is a sort of everlasting crossword puzzle,” disappears after a hit-and-run accident, while his house is burgled and a cryptic note left. His cousin and executor, anxious to establish survivorship, calls in Dr. Thorndyke, whose understanding of the significance of a fragment of pottery leads to the excavation of a Kentish barrow and the discovery of Penrose therein, and whose discovery of a connexion between the Billington Jewel Robbery and Penrose leads to the discovery of his murderer. The reader hesitates between two suspects before Dr. Thorndyke solves the conundrum in a most satisfying manner. Less satisfying is his habit of repeating his effects, and Mrs. Pettigrew’s willingness to keep the secret when she mistrusted Deodatus Pettigrew.

Contemporary reviews

Times Literary Supplement (Caldwell Harpur, 16th May 1936):

Penrose called a milk jug a galactophorous receptacle, and when he bought a thing from Todd he put down “Sweeney” in his catalogue.  He nearly always talked like that.  One may guess it was a secondary motive for murdering him.  Months after his disappearance, his executor called in Dr. Thorndyke, whose solutions of a dozen or more different mysteries in previous novels account for the deference with which the police treat him in this one.  By microscopic examination of the soil on Penrose’s car and on a bit of neolithic pot, the doctor followed the trail to Julliberrie’s Grave, which is south of Canterbury and scheduled as an Ancient Monument.  Then we have an interesting and evidently first-hand account of the ways of scientific archæologists with an Ancient Monument.  After finding the corpse, the doctor used similar methods to find the murderer.  A few things remain obscure: the forging of a letter from Penrose to postdate his death seems against the murderer’s interest as heir.


Observer (Torquemada, 24th May 1936):


Connoisseurs of Thorndyke will find three points of special interest in Dr. Freeman’s The Penrose Mystery.  In the first place, never until now has that engaging little artificer, Polton, been “in on” the problem before the Doctor.  I began to feel quite anxious lest the former would never get an opportunity to speak.  In the second place, perhaps because Watsons are coming into fashion again, Dr. Jervis has never made so clear the strength he gives to the Thorndyke tales.  He is the only Watson who demonstrably has brains above the average; in consequence his failure to keep pace with his reverend senior convinces us that the latter’s genius is a reality, not merely a claim.  Finally Brodribb, that pleasant lay old figure, here assumes a touch of life that is almost lively.  Needless to say the logic of the investigation is irreproachable, and the whimsies of the disappearing man are most genially set forth.  A reader, if there can be any such, meeting Thorndyke for the first time in The Penrose Mystery, will find both him and his creator quiet by modern standards.  But true scholarship and authentic power are never noisy.


New Statesman & Nation (Ralph Partridge, 20th June 1936):

Dr. Thorndyke wears well for a man of his years, but he is no longer in his prime, and some of the younger generation have copied his test tubes and improved on his rather dry and forbidding manner.  Still the old fellow gets about and his solution of The Penrose Mystery has all the assurance and competence that we habitually associate with Dr. Austin Freeman’s medical colleague.  Whenever Dr. Thorndyke puts two and two together there is never a hope the result will be anything but four; and as in addition the Doctor has a truer nose than any bloodhound that ever bayed, and has never been known to follow a false scent, it is a miracle any murderer lasts out 300 pages.  When you look into the question you notice that the delay is due solely to the old sleuth’s habit of giving tongue as he proceeds.  Penrose was another of those art connoisseurs who went for a drive and was never seen again for weeks and weeks.  I never know whether to be astonished or not at the way authors seem to hit on the same idea for a plot simultaneously.


Spectator (Nicholas Blake, 29th May 1936, 140w):

Dr. Austin Freeman is so justly popular an author that when he falls below his usual standard—as he does in The Penrose Mystery—he must expect searching criticism.


Chicago Daily Tribune (Mortimer Quick, 22nd August 1936, 130w):

A good solid mystery story for those who like their murders quietly and practically executed.


Sat R of Lit (22nd August 1936, 40w):

As usual in Freeman’s stories, the mystery is not too mysterious, but watching Dr. Thorndyke’s work is fascinating.


Books (Will Cuppy, 23rd August 1936, 210w):

You can’t go wrong with an R. Austin Freeman mystery unless you’re just stubborn.  This is another of Mr. Freeman’s sound, meaty items.


NY Times (Isaac Anderson, 23rd August 1936, 280w):

The special quality that distinguishes R. Austin Freeman’s stories from the general run of detective fiction is that they are completely logical and orderly without being in the least dull.