The Puzzle Lock (R. Austin Freeman)

Freeman - Puzzle Lock.jpg

By R. Austin Freeman

First published: UK, Hodder & Stoughton, 1925

A good Thorndyke collection comprising nine stories, set either in London or on the Kentish coast.

The best story is certainly “Rex v. Burnaby,” which offers a method of poisoning (by belladonna) nearly as clever as John Rhode’s Vegetable Duck.

“Phyllis Annesley’s Peril” is obvious but oh so ingenious in its description of how unbiased witnesses can, in all good faith, observe something which isn’t there.  It is related to Sayers’s “The Haunted Policeman” and John Dickson Carr’s The Bride of Newgate.

The title story is an entertaining account of professional crime (burglary) and a safe that opens to a chronogram, allowing Thorndyke to demonstrate his genius at code – breaking

In the same way, “A Mystery of the Sand – Hills” displays the sleuth’s ability to reason from sand and sea; full of good Thorndykean detection, but the plot is rather obscure.

Analysis of dust and sand found on “The Green Check Jacket” allows Thorndyke to discover two murders caused by a will.  A will is also at the root of the problem in that other account of physical detection, “The Mysterious Visitor.”

The three remaining stories are much weaker. “A Sower of Pestilence” is too improbable and unmotivated a villain to carry conviction, and his plot is incredible, while the theft of “The Seal of Nebuchadnezzar” makes for a rather dull tale.

The very worst, though, is “The Apparition of Burling Court,” which is in almost every respect a reworking of “The Mandarin’s Pearl”, and hence not worth the bother.

Contemporary reviews

Times Literary Supplement (16th July 1925):

This is another collection of admirable stories about the achievements of the learned and ever-observant John Thorndyke who, having sat at the feet of the great Holmes in his youth, has now become second only to his master in the public esteem.  In some ways indeed he has improved upon his master, for unlike him he takes all knowledge for his province, and in a long series of adventures, of which the present volume contains but the latest, we hope, instalment, has again and again brought queer bits of a deep erudition, lightly classed as “general knowledge”, to his assistance to enable him to interpret the true import of what he has observed.


NY Times (11th April 1926, 550w):

Mr. Freeman has produced a group of exceedingly clever mystery stories.  It is only the similarity of treatment that invites a disadvantageous comparison with the Conan Doyle stories.  Mr. Freeman would do well to make that similarity less obvious and to give his detective a distinct individuality.


NY World (E.C. Beckwith, 11th April 1926, 180w):

In each tale the author has conscientiously divested his enigma of every non-essential until it stands as a firmly compact, direct narrative whose framework might easily have served as the plot for a full-length mystery novel.  His prodigal generosity in using up so much fruitful embryonic material to fill a single volume, cannot be too highly lauded.