Murderous Reviews: The Red Thumb Mark – R Austin Freeman (1907)
It’s a bit of a retrofest this. One can purchase Freeman’s 21 Doctor Thorndyke novels and the entire short stories for Kindle on Amazon for £1.49. It’s a bit of a bargain.
Thorndyke is a kind of post-Holmes forensic detective who is employed in the main as proactive expert witness, using science and the technology of the day to deduce and demonstrate how certain crimes were committed.
In this instance Thorndyke gets involved when the nephew of a jeweller is charged with the theft of diamonds from his uncle’s safe. His bloody thumbprint was found on a slip of paper inside the empty safe.
Thorndyke, convinced of the man’s innocence, sets out to set up a case for the defence based on his scientific investigation.
It becomes clear that Thorndyke is on the right track when attempts on his life are made.
This book is truly fascinating, since it is in its own way an example of steampunk written at the appropriate time. (I accept that these works are Georgian rather than Victorian, but society and technology are not markedly changed.)
At one point a walking stick is revealed as a pump action gun that fires hypodermic bullets. Freeman describes the mechanics of the bullet (which uses its momentum to thrust out a needle and inject the victim) so well that if I had the equipment I could make it myself.
The novel is perhaps hampered by an overemphasis on the narrator’s growing ardour for Miss Gibson, a friend of the accused. Indeed the denouement abandons any details of what happened to the guilty party in favour of allowing the happy couple to gush at each other breathlessly and declare their deathless love. I hope there’s less of this sort of thing in successive volumes. It’s slightly sickening.
On the whole though it’s cracking stuff. In the foreword Freeman tells us that he made Thorndyke tall and handsome because there’s far too many ugly detectives about.
Thorndyke, Jervis (the narrator, employed to help Thorndyke with the case) and Thorndyke’s ‘man’ Polton, speak fluidly and poetically. I’m wondering if people actually spoke to each other this way back then. I’d like to think so.
‘My dear Jervis,’ he exclaimed. as we clasped hands warmly. ‘this is a great and delightful surprise. How often have I thought of my old comrade and wondered if I should ever see him again, and lo! here he is, thrown up on the sounding beach of the Inner Temple, like the proverbial bread cast upon the waters.’
‘Your surprise, Thorndyke, is nothing to mine,’ I relied, ‘for your bread has at least returned as bread; whereas i am in the position of a man who, having cast his bread upon the waters, sees it return in the form of a buttered muffin or as a Bath bun. I left a respectable medical practitioner and I find him transformed into a bewigged and begowned limb of the law.’
Polton, quite apart from cooking and making tea, is also a bit of a whiz in the laboratory and the engineering shed, and can take, develop and print amazing photographs.
It’s not difficult to work out who the evil genius is but that’s not the point. Some of these concepts must have bordered on Science Fiction at the time to his readership. Could J Austin Freeman be considered one of the forefathers of Steampunk?