#623: Mr. Pottermack’s Oversight (1930) by R. Austin Freeman

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When digging his garden to lay a foundation for a new sundial, quiet, unostentatious bachelor Marcus Pottermack uncovers a previously-unknown well.  That same day, he receives yet another demand for money from the man who is blackmailing him, and it’s only a matter of time before one problem is used to solve the other.  And when curiosities about the man’s disappearance are raised in passing with Dr. John Thorndyke, it’s only a matter of time before that pillar of truth is on the trail of quiet, unostentatious Marcus Pottermack.  And yet, for all its conventional-sounding setup, Mr. Pottermack’s Oversight (1930) is a delightfully unconventional inverted mystery.

In all future discussions of “Which book comes closest to perfection only to fluff it at the last minute?”, you can expect me to harp on about Mr. Pottermack — because it is delightful, ingeniously surprising, unexpectedly clever in how it shuffles the anticipated permutations of an inverted crime novel, and redolent with the sort of frustrated ambition that makes its protagonist one of the most sympathetic murderers in fiction.  As my first venture into the work of Richard Austin Freeman,  I was honestly kept in suspense as to the eventual outcome, not knowing how fully he would kowtow to the Victorian moral expectations which are at once entirely thrown over and obliquely omnipresent (the latter no doubt a result of the prose reading like someone introduced Wilkie Collins to the concept of “editing”).  And then in the final chapter…ugh.  But we’ll get to that in due course.

The first surprise is the lecturing-hectoring tone which starts proceedings:

Criminologists of certain Continental schools are able to give us with remarkable exactness the facial ad other characteristics by which the criminal may be infallibly recognised … But in this backward country…we have to admit that the British criminal inconsiderately insists in being a good deal like other people.

Now, you and I, we’ve read plenty of novels which often cram their best writing into the opening pages and then settle down to gently bland you to tears, but part of the joy I found here was how consistently Freeman sticks to this tone, and it is half of the elixir which elevates this from the also-rans,  Witness Mr. Pottermack initiating some aspect of his artifice by “prepar[ing] to set forth along that perilous track beaten smooth by the feet of those who do not know when to let well alone” only for the result of his efforts to be that “the fat was in the fire and he waited with constantly strained ears to catch the sound of its sizzling”.  If not on every single page, I’ll wager that every single chapter gives at least a couple of occasions to be charmed by Freeman’s verbiage (“One would not have regarded it as a thrilling occupation…”).

The other half of the elixir is the multiplicity of delights hewn from the plot.  It’s arguable precisely which oversight the titles refers to, since problems present themselves from the very first: “The annals of crime, and especially of murder, were full of fatal oversights”.  Footprints, money, clothes, and identity are just the opening tranche of problems that must be dealt with before Dr. Thorndyke takes the stage and — in a manner not revealed until the penultimate chapter — unpicks all Pottermack’s rigorous and ingenious scheming in half an hour with nothing more than a microscope and a set of photos.  By the halfway point, after being aware of the problem for two whole chapters, Thorndyke is all but certain that murder has occurred, how and where it was done, whodunnit, and whydunnit into the bargain.  John Thorndyke, ladies and gentlemen, does not fuck around.

At just after halfway, in chapters 10 and 11, comes the point where this sort of book lives or dies, and holy cow does this become utterly, utterly wonderful.  Anyone who spoils the direction taken in the second half — and especially the reason for that direction — should be dumped in a well themselves, because it’s a development that elicited an actual yelp of delight from me as the pictures slowly formed in my mind as they were confirmed on the page.  It makes me grin even now to remember it, and off we go on another round of scheming and tireless ingenuity, and so Thorndyke ends up in the mix again — the way he reaches a certain conclusion, again with lightning-fast reasoning based on Freeman’s own medical knowledge is wonderful — and he and Pottermack are set to collide…

Thorndyke is a fascinating character on this evidence: given the profession of a “medico-legal adviser” to an insurance company, he comes across as a sort of proto James Bond with his little gadgets and independent brief to roam and enquire.  He’s highly-regarded due to the brilliant insight he can bring to a situation, and yet thoroughly disdainful of any unctuous treatment on this account; uncomfortable with being given a very visible seat at an inquest, he seems to view everything as an interested yet passive observer — “allowance had to be made for special circumstances”.  And his (perfectly valid) reflections on the “perverting effect of unconscious bias” might just be the first time I’ve ever encountered a novel from this era actively criticising such an undertaking…and no light criticism, either — Freeman flays it to within an inch of its life.

The convoking of Thorndyke and Pottermack for the final showdown is wonderful for how Pottermack’s dissembling is laid bare, and what is doubtless the eponymous oversight is emblematic of the sort of perspective Thorndyke has shown throughout (that thing with the screws at the inquest — I mean, that’s both wildly unbelievable and yet staggeringly, embarrassingly obvious).  It’s a humdinger of a meet, and one that ticks every box…right up to the aching, laborious, recapitulatory tedium of Thorndyke restating — divested of any of the charm in such abundance elsewhere — all the information we already know.  The functional, deathless prose with which Freeman communicates Thorndyke’s findings as if relating characteristics of moths pinned to a board is probably fitting for the way that great man operates, but to wade through it a second time when the key question remains unanswered and I was desperate to know the answer took, unfortunately, the last gleeful sheen off this for me.

But that is a mere 12 pages out of 311, and all the foregoing delights in so, so many ways (I even learned a new phrase — “short commons” — and that “mizzle” far from being a weather condition used to mean “go on the run”).  I’m very grateful to Ken for recommending this one, and R. Austin Freeman can add himself to the queue of GAD authors who have thoroughly piqued my interest.  I dunno how available the man is but, as far as this blog is concerned, John Thorndyke Shall Return…

22 thoughts on “#623: Mr. Pottermack’s Oversight (1930) by R. Austin Freeman

  1. You’re a Crofts / Humdrum fan – and this is your first Freeman? My dear chap, O my dear chap! Get hold of The Eye of Osiris, As a Thief in the Night, The Mystery of 31 New Inn, The D’Arblay Mystery, The Singing Bone, etc. You’ll love them.

    Oh, and ‘deathly’, not ‘deathless’.

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    • Thanks, Nick, on both counts. As with Crofts BC (Before Conversion), the issue in not reading Freeman has been his unavailability — I think I once saw a short story collection somewhere and that’s about it. Pure serendipity that I happened upon Pottermack so soon after Ken’s recommendation. Now I’ll have to hunt down RAF’s House of Stratus reissues as well as FWC’s…man, the similarities are stacking up.

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  2. As far as availability is concerned he is out of copyright and you can get the whole Dr Thorndyke opus (21 novels and 40 short stories) for 49p on kindle. In fact you can probably get everything for free on Gutenberg. I’ve only read some of the early stuff including ‘The Eye of Osiris’ which was good but from your review he seems to have got better with age.

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    • The older I get, the less I get on with ebooks — and those “47 books in one volume” editions are, perhaps inevitably, usually poorly put together and formatted (in my brief experience, that is) and they seem increasingly disrespectful, y’know? So, bargain though it may be, I’ll be looking out for these books as books, and will just have to hope that I stumble upon a pile of pristine reissues behind a section of false wall or something.

      The hunt is on…

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      • The titles Nick mentioned are in Kindle individually also, from Mysteriouspress. So they are well formatted and correct. I must say your complaint is odd coming from a booster of self published books 🤪 Butt to weech hiz own.

        I like his inverteds much more than his regular mysteries. The collection The Singing Bone is where the inverted was invented, and is very good.

        Mandatory comment on inverted mystery threads: Roy Vickers!

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        • I now you’re just ribbing me, but those ebookifications of someone else’s work now in the public domain with no effort — when professionally edited and typeset editions exist elsewhere — irritate the living hell outta me. Were RAF himself choosing to put this out as a poorly-formatted, lazily-assembled cash grab of pointless proportions I’d have noting to complain about, but the disrespect shown under the apparent guise of trying to make work available…grrrr, those people have a special vestibule in Purgatory awaiting them.

          I enjoyed this novel so much — and I am genuinely grateful to you for the recommendation — that I’m boldly going to jump in with some other novels first and then come back to probably The Singing Bone at some future date. Alas, the Mysterious Press editions are rarely for sale in the UK for (I’m assuming) copyright reasons, but there do seem to be quite a few Stratus editions still kicking around Amazon. So, with a heavy sigh, it’s to Amazon I shall go.

          I was informed on Facebook about an undertaking being overseen by David Marcum with the Complete Thorndyke being produced in multiple volume editions (here’s a link for the interested — but I do so struggle with multi-volume editions and try to avoid them if possible. In the case of, say, Roger Scarlett it’s not really an option, of course, but I know RAF is available as individual books for a price I can afford, and so…

          As to Roy Vickers, I’ll say this: yes, he’s an author who wrote inverteds.

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  3. I’ve read a couple of Freeman books before and found them generally fine and was always curious about this one as it seems to be fairly well thought of. Anyway, You reminded me of it now so I’ve put in an order for a copy.

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    • Hope you enjoy is, Colin. I can see links with Crofts in how carefully RAF builds and how patiently he unpicks, but Thorndyke seems both more brilliant and more boring than French…so further examination is definitely called for.

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  4. It might be said that the set of circumstances which lead Pottermack to follow the series of actions given in the book is remarkably unlikely – but if and when you come to one of his other inverted mysteries (For The Defence, Dr. Thornyke) you’ll it leaves this one in the shade as far as unlikeliness goes. But does that matter? (Discuss) Pottermack is still one of my favourites out of the Freeman opus,

    As far as the cover of this edition goes, for all its merits it does make Pottermack look rather too much like a Teddy boy. Still that’s preferable to the covers of the recent reprints by House of Stratus, which are just extremely odd.

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    • Ha, I know what you mean. In fairness, Freeman does sort of address that at the very start — there’s a moment where he goes “If he hadn’t gone out to do this now, what went on to happen wouldn’t have happened” — but even without that it wouldn’t bother me,

      I always take the perspective that these stories are the ones we get told because they’re the ones where the things that needed to happen happened. Maybe it’on account of my love of an ingenious impossible crime that I’m willing to accept the circumstances being loopy if the plot is clever enough to use them well (or maybe it’s the other way round…or both…or neither). Whatever it is, I’m glad we agree on the quality of this, because I think it’s a wonderful book.

      I love the colouring of the cover. A shame more in this series weren’t released with the same shadowy/stained glass effect. And depicting a scene that actually occurs in the novel, too — Hogarth, you spoil us!

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      • Actually the pictured edition is the same as my copy of the book, and reminds me of my luckiest trip to an airport bookshop. I was flying back from Singapore to the UK in 1992 and bought this book, C H B Kitchin’s Death of my Aunt, FWC’s Starvel Tragedy and Summer Half by Angela Thirkell (in this regard I agree with the Clothes in Books comment that she and Marsh should have co-written 1930s and 40s crime books) and read them on the journey back. Since then when I have seen a book in a bookshop or on Amazon written by all four authors I have happily and 99% of the time have been glad to have done so. I do agree that Hogarth did some excellent front covers.

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  5. I am joining the chorus of people who are flabbergasted at this being your first Freeman novel. Given your preferences I would have thought he would be right up your street and it seems that I am correct lol Unsurprisingly me and Freeman do not get on. I’ve read The Red Thumb Mark and Mr Polton Explains, the latter being by far the worst. Makes Crofts a scintillating read…

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    • In fairness, I didn’t discover I was a FWC fan until this blog was reasonably established, and have you seen how many authors were publishing GAD back in the day? There’s, like, at least twelve of them…and, man, it is a lot to keep up with 🙂

      Still, I’ve done what Brad always want to do and discovered an author I think I can get excited about who has a bunch of novels to their name. All I need now is the funds the buy them, the time to read them, and the means to find them. Simple.

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  6. Hmm, it all sounds so good, although actively seeking out a mystery book that doesn’t fully satisfy in the end has me conflicted. But then again, some of these are actually better appreciated for the journey than the conclusion.

    I couldn’t help thinking of Trial and Error while reading your review, at least in the way that the authors have a knack of streaming out statements that you just want to jot down to savor later. The Thorndyke angle is an obvious divergence and I imagine they’re very different plots.

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    • This isn’t even remotely the same sort of thing as Trial and Error, no, beyond them being inverted mysteries. I had in mind the sort of “shock” ending Berkeley might have put on this and — since this was my RAF novel (though I’ve been reminded on Facebook that I have read him before, with ‘The Aluminium Dagger’) — I couldn’t be certain that wasn’t going to happen. But it didn’t, and of course I shall not reveal what I thought it might have been…since I could write that book myself one day 🙂

      Bear in mind, too, that the final chapter was frustrating because I was so very desperate to find out how the core question would be answered, and so the delay vexed me since there was nothing from the reader’s perspective that needed further clarification. Do you want to pass up the chance to read a book that could have you that invested in the essential focus and intent of the plot? ‘Cause I’d say you’re a brave man if you do…

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  7. I would agree with Nick Fuller’s recommendations and for myself would add The Shadow of the Wolf and the short story collection The Magic Casket. There are also some curiosities where basically Freeman used Thorndyke to recycle aspects of his life and interests – there is one book (A Certain Dr Thorndyke) in which two thirds of it is devoted to adventures on the Gold Coast (where he worked for part of his life). I would agree that Mr Polton Explains is a bad detective story, although it is a rather convincing and depressing depiction of how hard it could be to escape poverty which is not normally what one is looking for in a GAD novel. The one book I would recommend avoiding is Pontifex, Son and Thorndyke which has probably dated the worst. I have occasionally seen suggestions that the Thorndyke stories helped the development of forensic detection in the UK and wonder whether anyone has more detail on this.

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    • Sounds like RAF went in for the unconventional at times — thanks, this is very enlightening. I’ll probably try another two or three to try before committing fully to getting everything (I didn’t even leap in two-footed with The Other Freeman, reading three or four before deciding that I’d happily get the other 35 without hesitation) since I’ve been stung before in my enthusiasm. But I’m gratified to see the amount of interest there is in RAF’s work, and that he’s very highly regarded by people who know their stuff.

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  8. I like this one a lot. I remember it as the one about the sundial. But my favorite is THE SHADOW OF THE WOLF. The way in which Thorndyke uncovers and proves the murder in that book is remarkable. Freeman probably shines better in short story format, but I do like some of his novels. …WOLF is completely fascinating and engrossing. All the moreso if you are a boating enthusiast.

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    • Thanks, John, I shall add TSotW to my potential Freeman list — I’m very keen to read more by him, so will return before too long. And if there’s a story that shows Freeman as being even more remarkable than in this one, that’s a book I want to read…!

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  9. This year I’m rereading the whole Freeman (once more) and what a delight and bliss and blessedness it”s been (once again).
    Especially after all those overrated and amateurish and innumerable Conningtons, Allinghams, Christies (sic!),Brands, Crispins, Halters etc.some of the most undemanding readers 😉 are so fond of.

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    • Must be lovely to have an author to return to again and again, knowing you’re going to enjoy what you read. I envy you having known about Freeman all this time; I very much look forward to being able to reread him myself in about three decades from now XD

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  10. Pingback: Mr. Pottermack’s Oversight by R. Austin Freeman (1930) – Bedford Bookshelf

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