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…
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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…
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.