#659: Spoiler Warning 14 – The Eye of Osiris, a.k.a. The Vanishing Man (1911) by R. Austin Freeman

spoiler-warning

Every post could be someone’s first post, so just in case you’re new here: this post today is rich in spoiler-heavy details about the novel The Eye of Osiris, a.k.a. The Vanishing Man (1911) by R. Austin Freeman. Read on only if you don’t mind having plot details discussed.  Do not assume I’m going to be vague and mindful of avoiding spoilers.

To my understanding the second novel to feature Dr. John Thorndyke after The Red Thumb Mark (1907), this concerns the disappearance of Egyptologist John Bellingham.  Returning to London from a trip to Paris, Bellingham calls on his cousin George Hurst and, finding him not at home, tells the maid that he will wait in Hurst’s study.  When Hurst returns home 25 minutes later there is no sign of Bellingham in the house and — while it is eminently possible for him to have affected an unobserved exit — he gave no indication to Hurst’s ever-watchful maid that he intended to leave.

The mystery deepens when Hurst and his lawyer friend Arthur Jellicoe visit Bellingham’s brother Godfrey to express concerns over this vanishment and find a distinctive scarab-shaped trinket, similar to one Bellingham wore on his watch chain, in Godfrey’s garden despite Godfrey and his daughter Ruth claiming not to have seen Bellingham for some time.  Since Godfrey and Hurst stand to benefit in vastly contrasting ways depending on the interpretation of Bellingham’s will, you can bet that there’s trouble brewing.

Two years later, Paul Berkeley, having completed his medical studies partly under the tutelage of one Dr. John Evelyn Thorndyke, is covering a GP practice for a holidaying colleague when he makes the acquaintance of one Godfrey Bellingham.  George Hurst, it seems, is tired of waiting for his money, and is seeking to institute legal proceedings to have Bellingham declared dead, and it’s not too long before other complications begin to make themselves felt…

Eyes of Osiris

First things first, let’s not ignore the fact that the pacing of this book is molasses slow — given that Thorndyke expresses an interest in the Bellingham case in the very first chapter, and that Berkeley encounters Godfrey and Ruth Bellingham in chapter 2, it should be unforgivable that Thorndyke doesn’t actually get round to being involved with the affair until the halfway mark.  And yet, hot damn did Freeman ever hold my attention: in part through simply being a magnificent writer with an unexpectedly wry take on things, like the back and forth when Ruth explains her work:

“A venerable Archdeacon wrote an article on the patriarch Joseph—”

“And didn’t know anything about him,” interrupted Mr. Bellingham, “and got tripped up by a specialist who did, and then got shirty—”

“Nothing of the kind,” said Miss Bellingham.”‘He knew as much as venerable archdeacons ought to know; but the expert knew more.”

Or Berkeley’s frustration when confronted with a patient at a time when he is desperately keen to read his paper, in which is reported the discovery those of human remains that will become so core to the story:

[A]s I opened the door I found myself confronted by a corpulent woman of piebald and pimply aspect who saluted me with a deep groan. It was the lady from the coal shop in Fleur-de-Lys Court.

“Good-evening, Mrs. Jablett,” I said briskly; “not come about yourself, I hope.”

“Yes, I have,” she answered, rising and following me gloomily into the consulting-room; and then, when I had seated her in the patient’s chair and myself at the writing table, she continued: “It’s my inside, you know, doctor.”

The statement lacked anatomical precision and merely excluded the domain of the skin specialist.

Freeman seems to be that bridge between the wandering verbosity of Dickens and Poe and the plot-focussed mechanics of Christie and the forthcoming Golden Age.  He will tell his story in his own way at his own pace, and if it’s rather more of a love story with detective interruptions, so be it.  That he can drop in these moments of wit really warms me to him where I should be chewing my knuckles and wishing to high heaven that he’d get on with it — the opening paragraph of chapter 10 in which he discusses Samuel Johnson is charming in the extreme, and while you could slice it out and have no impact on any of the events in the book, I wouldn’t have it excised for anything.

I suppose I’m surprised, two novels in, that Freeman should be the exact type of writer I do not enjoy — far too little plot spread over far too many pages — since I am too impatient in the main to want to spend time on lovers’ meetings and the slow, steady, inevitable erosion of late Victorian reserve.  I should be thinking “Get to the dead body and the missing man!” but I’m perfectly at ease to let this story be told as Freeman wants.

Eye of Osiris

It helps that his characters are so easy to engage with, and that the love story at the core of this is therefore easy to invest in.  Yes, Paul Berkeley is a dull, dry stick of seemingly such limited insight that he makes Nigel Bruce’s Dr. Watson look like S.F.X van Dusen, but there’s more than enough interest in the people around him to allow for that (and, anyway, you don’t want your narrator to be too interesting — they’re not the star of the show, remember).

Jervis is a good example of this: acting as “little flea” to Thorndyke’s “big flea” and rendering himself “the additional fraction trailing after the whole number in the rear of a decimal point”, or telling Berkeley that Thorndyke “is fitted with an information valve that opens inwards. You can pour in as much as you like, but you can’t get any out” — there’s a sense of a man never taking himself too seriously, and his every appearance is lightness itself.  It’s arguable that he supplies nothing in plot terms, and that he’s really there to good-naturedly goad Berkeley into unmasking his feelings by dismissing Ruth as being the “type” with “[i]nky fingers; no chest to speak of; all side and spectacles”, but his presence means that his scenes are never dull.

Equally, Miss Oman, the housekeeper/factotum of the Bellingham menage, who seems to have wandered in from a P.G. Wodehouse novel and is there to pinch her lips and disapprove of Berkeley before being grudgingly won over — the social politics of the time possibly demanding that someone should approve of him as a partner for Ruth, since her father is rather too abstracted.  The listing of the contents of her purse — “…draper’s samples, ends of tape, a card of linen buttons, another of hooks and eyes, a lump of beeswax…” — is another of those moments that should have had me tearing my hair out, but it’s such a beautiful encapsulation of her character that I couldn’t help but smile along.  It’s a shame that she, too, provides no real plot function and all but disappears in the second half of the book, because I enjoyed her every appearance, too.

Top of the heap must be Arthur Jellicoe, though, whose character is first revealed in that magnificent scene of legal vs. medical truth in chapter 9, ‘The Sphinx of Lincoln’s Inn’ — as gorgeously po-faced and droll a piece of writing as you’ll find, and a perfect introduction to the sort of cleverness that is about to swamp the genre.

“But to return to the case of John Bellingham. Supposing that after the Court has decided that he is dead he should return alive? What then?”

“Ah! It would then be his turn to make an application, and the Court, having fresh evidence laid before it, would probably decide that he was alive.”

That “probably” cracks me up, as does the obvious lack of antipathy that Berkeley holds towards the old lawyer.  Where the easy thing would be for the narrator to become frustrated on the reader’s behalf, Freeman is probably just so in love with Jellicoe that he wants us to appreciate the care that has gone into crafting him:

His countenance (which served the ordinary purposes of a face, inasmuch as it contained the principal organs of special sense, with inlets to the alimentary and respiratory tracts) was, as an apparatus for the expression of the emotions, a total failure. To a thought-reader it would have been about as helpful as the face carved upon the handle of an umbrella; a comparison suggested, perhaps, by a certain resemblance to such an object.

Spare, too, some love for the unnamed judge of the probate court who, when faced with a lawyer trying to establish the uxorial arrangement of Mr. Hurst’s household from a Stage 3 saucily unhelpful maid suggests that “as I see that you are calling Mr. Hurst, perhaps you had better put the question to him. He will probably know”.  If you can’t enjoy that, I feel a little sorry for you.

Eye of Osiris

But what of the plot?  To begin with, I think this might be one of those few cases where the American title — The Vanishing Man — is an improvement on the English, since as soon as that vermilion tattoo of the eponymous Eye is mention in the first chapter you know full well that it’s going to be an identifying mark when a corpse shows up…and so the steady emergence of these body parts (which, quite against the odds, seem to be the only bones anyone finds in Essex that month…) has to be a blind because the tattoo can’t come into it if there’s no skin.

The “diabolically exasperating” will at the centre of things is a great creation, though, and the payoff is magnificent.  Given how early this is in the gamut of the Problematic Survivorship subgenre (c.f The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (1928) by Dorothy L. Sayers, etc.) it does feel perfectly formed — the complications and how they affect the execution of the will, and the wonderful payoff, as I say, when Thorndyke, having discovered John Bellingham’s body in the sarcophagus points out that the museum is an “authorised place for the reception of the bodies of the dead”, is superbly handled, and worth the wait even though it’s not entirely unexpected for the reader encountering this 109 years after its initial publication.

The medical evidence, too, is superb: discussing the pristine nature of the dissection of the corpse, and the simple way that Thorndyke is able to dismiss a butcher from consideration as a suspect on account of the physiology of a lamb.  The speed at which Thorndyke is able to assimilate and process information is always wonderful to see — he has all the brilliance of Sherlock Holmes without the convenient ipsedixitism that can confound those of use who wish to enjoy the detection of the World’s Greatest Detective.  It is, I suppose, this insight which necessitates something else occupying the majority of the book, since left to his own devices Thorndyke would unpick it in about six pages (c.f. Mr. Pottermack’s Oversight (1930), my only other Freeman to date) and makes me especially eager to encounter him in the short story form where such dissembly isn’t such an option.  Yes, I’ve read ‘The Aluminium Dagger’ (1910).  No, I don’t remember it.

Truth is starting to establish itself as at least on par with, if not more important than, justice, something that the amateur had free reign over throughout GAD.  Jellicoe, confronted with the overwhelming evidence of his crime, is allowed to commit suicide without any comment being passed and, I have to be honest, if I could do a PhD it’d be on something like Criminals the Author/Sleuth Allows to Commit Suicide in GAD Novels Published 1900-1949.  Or similar.  I’ll not get into it here, but holy crap it fascinates me.

The sheer volume of overlap with Mr. Pottermack’s Oversight is fascinating, too.  I’m only supposed to be spoiling this book and not that one, but, wow.  It’s like Freeman came up with a new take on the same ingredients 20 years later, and I couldn’t have done better than reading them one after the other in the order I did.  Dunno how to address that here, but if anyone wants to get into it in the comments I shall be delighted to.

Eye of Osiris

Perhaps more interesting than the plot is the couple of moments that seem to anticipate the forthcoming rise in complexity in the detection genre, and the insight contained in passages such as:

“[W]e ought to be doing better work than our forefathers; whereas what we actually do is to pull down the old buildings, clap the doorways, porticoes, panelling, and mantels in our museums, and then run up something inexpensive and useful and deadly uninteresting in their place.”

…which feels like an analogy for the crime fiction genre if ever I stumbled across one!

You can feel the callowness of the puzzle plot, too, even though Gaston Leroux’s The Mystery of the Yellow Room (1907) would have already shown the way, in statements like:

“What we may fairly assume is that no reasonable person, no matter how immoral, would find himself in the position [of having to dispose of a corpse]. Murder is usually a crime of impulse, and the murderer a person of feeble self-control. Such persons are most unlikely to make elaborate and ingenious arrangements for the disposal of the bodies of their victims. Even the cold-blooded perpetrators of the most carefully planned murders appear as I have said, to break down at this point. The almost insuperable difficulty of getting rid of the human body is not appreciated until the murderer suddenly finds himself face to face with it.”

The 1920s and 30s were about to disgorge any number of reasonable people who exhibited magnificent self-control when planning and executing a crime.  Of course, this is the realist nature of the genre talking at this stage, and I’m not suggesting that Freeman is in any way at fault for being unable to anticipate the literary trends 15 years hence, it’s just fascinating to consider the historical perspective of this unaware that The Cask (1920) by Freeman Wills Crofts, The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920) by Agatha Christie, and a slew of newly-inspired homicidally-creative typewriter owners are about to swell the banks of the converse of this statement  well past bursting point.

“When you have fitted the puzzle together, you don’t need to be told you have done it.”

This sentiment again expresses the growing standard for which detective fiction would strive.  No more do you need to be told by your unknowable genius how they but it together, you should be able to work it out for yourself and know because you’ve had the puzzle pieces available.  Now, yes, not every GAD author managed it, and those who did didn’t manage it in every plot they wrote, but it’s a nice sentiment to take away from the era in which this was written: the times, they are a-changin’.

Eye of Osiris

Finally, this exchange is of particular historical fascination:

[A]s we met a party of grave-looking women emerging from a side-street, she said: “I suppose these are lady medical students”

“Yes, on their way to the Royal Free Hospital. Note the gravity of their demeanour and contrast it with the levity of the male student.”

“I was doing so,” she answered, “and wondering why professional women are usually so much more serious than men.”

“Perhaps,” I suggested, “it is a matter of selection. A peculiar type of woman is attracted to the professions, whereas every man has to earn his living as a matter of course.”

The idea of a woman seeking a profession being seen as “peculiar” is another of those perquisites that comes from reading novels of this era (though, granted, this is a little earlier than my usual).  The idea that the rights extended to men — to work, to vote — would be seen as an obligation of theirs and something to be denied to women by nature of wishing to spare them a burden is, of course, in keeping with the times, but I think it’s easy to forget this perspective when looking back from over a century ahead.  Freeman’s not making any wider point, and neither am I, it’s just one of those notes of historical interest that crop up and I like pointing out to myself.

Eyes of Osiris

Whew!

Well, if you got through those 2,500 words, my congratulations.  Freeman is an author I’m delighted to finally read and find so much to discuss in, with perhaps the biggest revelation being to me how the lack of plot here in no way impeded my enjoyment of this very enjoyable book.  Thanks for reading the above, and if you wish to talk about anything below, let’s get into it…

~

See also

Martin Edwards in The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books (2017): The puzzle is cleverly constructed, and Freeman’s meticulous handling of technical detail makes Thorndyke’s investigation highly credible, even though the prose lacks sparkle, and the story proceeds at a stately pace.  The ‘love interest’ did not appeal to every reader; even Dorothy L. Sayers — a fervent admirer of Freeman — deplored it.  Thorndyke is, however, bluntly unapologetic.  Perhaps speaking for Freeman, he insists: “We should be bad biologists and worse physicians if we should underestimate the…paramount important of sex; and we are deaf and blind if we do not hear and see it in everything that lives when we look around the world.”

Laurie @ Bedford Bookshelf: Going into this, I knew that the emphasis would be on Thorndyke as a scientific investigator, which might end in a rather dry read. Far from it! This is a well crafted puzzle, nicely-placed, eminently fair, and surprisingly full of wit.

17 thoughts on “#659: Spoiler Warning 14 – The Eye of Osiris, a.k.a. The Vanishing Man (1911) by R. Austin Freeman

  1. When I first read The Eye of Osiris just after my college days I thought it the best Detective/Mystery novel I’d come across. Now, decades later I’d not rank it so very high but it still makes my top twenty list. Maybe even my top ten list. I love Freeman’s formal Edwardian writing style and his very, very, very dry humor. I’ve read about half the Thorndyke novels and about 90% of the short stories and enjoyed just about all of them. Freeman seems to repeat the same six or eight plots throughout his Thorndyke series but I don’t mind this apparent shortcoming. Regarding Freeman’s style/humor: I have used variants of one of Jervis’s (in my opinion) hilarious phrases in the final paragraph of two of my own pieces of detective fiction. Thank goodness his early work is out of copyright. I also enjoyed the Romney Pringle stories that Freeman co-authored prior to the Thorndyke stories.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m impressed you think so highly of it, Bob — it’s enjoyable, and clearly had a huge influence on the genre and, no doubt, a lot of readers and writers who encountered it at an early stage in their careers.

      I’m very interested in the short stories, to see if they show Freeman honing his craft somewhat, so I imagine I’ll go to The Singing Bone next, and then…who knows? I have plenty to choose from, so I’ll probably just follow my nose and any recommendations and see what I stumble onto.

      And, yes, if all goes well, onto Romney Pringle at some point, too. Man, it’s lovely to discover a prolific author I can get excited about 🙂

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  2. ‘He will tell his story in his own way at his own pace, and if it’s rather more of a love story with detective interruptions, so be it.’
    Well you best get cracking with Busman’s Honeymoon then!

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  3. “…Freeman should be the exact type of writer I do not enjoy — far too little plot spread over far too many pages…but I’m perfectly at ease to let this story be told as Freeman wants.” Couldn’t agree more! Austin’s diversions into what some may consider the mundane, were for me really a more interesting path through the woods. No inquest has ever been more enlightening, or entertaining!

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    • The court proceedings here are legitimately great, as they were in Pottermack. Is it because these characters are so easy to invest in? Is it because there’s always a waspish sense of fun lurking just around the corner? Who knows, I’m just delighted to feel this way about his writing.

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      • I have Pottermack on the shelf waiting to be read, now probably sooner than later. I believe you have something there regarding the characters. I’ll have to read more to give an educated opinion, but Freeman invests his time in almost every single character. Even the probate judge “had a curious frog-like trick of flattening his eyelids—as if in the act of swallowing a large beetle…” 🤣

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        • I get the impression that Freeman invested his characters with a real internal life — they were rarely just a body in a role to say some lines to propel the plot. Sure, they did say the lines to propel the plot, but he would take the time to give them some sense of existence beyond the role they were currently fulfilling — see Jervis here, who really does nothing or any note but feels like a complete man who is definitely doing something when not simply sitting at the Oracle’s feet.

          And, from a genre perspective, that’s sort of amazing when you consider how it came to rely on the Type: on, say, Christie’s skill of making you go “Oh, sure, another boring country parson, well we know he’s just here for light comedy” and then that country parson turns out to have some mania that means he’s killed eight people. For a genre that’s often criticised for the lack of spirit or life given to the people who inhabit it — and, yes, a lot of that is in the eye of the beholder — I think Freeman is a good way to begin to demonstrate how untrue that is.

          Hmmm, I feel a series of essays coming on 😆😆

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  4. I really enjoyed this article! Austin Freeman encapsulates that very Edwardian style that I really love. HG Wells, when he could keep off his obsession that all clergymen are deranged, is another great of the time.
    I don’t know, but I’m prepared to bet, that Dorothy L Sayers based her KC , Sir Impey Biggs, on Thorndyke. Both are meant to be drop dead handsome and (of course) mega brainy. DLS has someone (Harriet Vane?) remark that no woman would ever feel anything for Sir Impey and Thorndyke’s just the same. Although Thorndykes assistants pair off like characters in a musical, you can’t ever imagine Thorndyke falling for someone. I don’t know if Freeman ever realised that, as he very clearly thought Thorndyke was the complete bees knees. Very enjoyable stories though. And – this is interesting- he’s just about the only writer of the time who has fully fleshed out African characters. He was an official on the Gold Coast before he became seriously ill, so I guess that accounts for it

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    • Thanks, Dolores, I’m yet to encounter any of Freeman’s foreign characters but I’ll be especially interested now, knowing a bit of his background.

      I saw similarities between Biggs and Erle Stanley Gardner’s Alfonse Baker Carr, and was reflecting recently on the similarities between Carr an Thorndyke, but the commutative comparison of Biggs and Thorndyke passed me by entirely. It would be lovely to know how these and other characters directly influenced each other, because it’s tempting to see an author spotting the unrealised potential in someone else’s creation and so siphoning thag off for their own ends…

      And maybe there’s something about grandly brilliant men that requires them to be a little asexual — even when the Great Sleuths started off with wives, those poor women ended up pretty neglected as their husbands’ sleuthing careers progressed. Love is for everyday folk, genius clearly has other things on its mind 🙂

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  5. Yes, The Eye of Osiris is excellent. In some ways, it’s a rather charming black comedy, in the line of Stevenson’s Wrong Box. Certainly, Dr. Thorndyke’s solution to the legal problem is the punch-line to a joke: Bellingham’s transformation into a mummy meets all the conditions of the clause. A wonderful payoff, as you say!

    This is in many ways a typical Freeman mystery. We have a legal problem (survivorship) and the disposal of the corpse. We have antiquarian lore (Egyptology). We have scientific knowledge: X-rays (Howard Carter and Grafton Elliot Smith performed the first x-ray on a mummy that decade), medical knowledge (ligaments, teeth fillings, and Potts’s fracture), and natural history (dried egg-clusters of the common pond snail and tubes of the red river worm on the bones). Freeman, like Thorndyke, was a polymath. And all done with great charm and verve.

    The short stories are good, but so are several of the novels. Do try The D’Arblay Mystery and As a Thief in the Night, and then The Mysteries of 31, New Inn and of Angelina Frood. You will find overlap of ideas in the Freeman novels (one critic of the time complained that he only had three plots), and many of the ideas in Sayers, Crofts, Street, and Connington have their roots here. And Dashiell Hammett pinched the plot for one of his best-known books.

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    • I can see a certain reocurrence of key themes even in the two novels I’ve read…but, hey, when you’re this good at that sort of thing, why mess around with it? You make a great point about the sheer range of topics covered, and in a way that makes it even more impressive that only about half the text deals directly with the mystery at its core.

      I’ll probably try The Singing Bone collection next, but shall then take your lead on the order of novels — thanks. I have D’Arblay, Thief, and New Inn, so they’ll be the next handful I’ll attempt in the months ahead.

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      • I am glad to see that you are enjoying RAF. Based on the two you have enjoyed so far I would suggest (based on your twitter feed) prioritising Shadow of the Wolf and the Magic Casket over, say, the Red Thumb Mark. Otherwise I would agree with Nick Fuller’s recommendations. The few pages on him in the Martin Gilbert book did suggest he was an interesting character in his own right. I do enjoy the occasional bits of dry humour – I think in this one there was an example of a judge taking down a pompous barrister and elsewhere there was a comparison of a kitten and a battered tom cat which made its point well. I also do enjoy the fact that there is a competent sidekick in Polton of the crinkly face. I do hope that he can be added to the BLCC reprints list- Pottermack or Osiris would be good choices.

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        • Thanks — I’m fully prepared for Red Thumb Mark to be a little on the light side, but I think you’re right that it would be good to see him at his more successful first and so I’ll put that one down for later. Perhaps I’ll read it after my First Inevitable Disappointment with him, go back to the beginnings and reset, eh? For some reason, I feel no compunction to stick to my usual “read them chronologically” approach with RAF, so I’m happy to jump around to wherever well-informed recommendations take me.

          He’d be an interesting addition to the BLCC, though I’m obviously nowhere close to well-enough read to say which title would work best. I Loved Pottermack, obviously, but it would be premature of me to race in with only that as my guide. However, he’s so tidy and wry with his prose, I can believe that almost anything would work well in that series.

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