It was my understanding that William Shakespeare invented the word “eyeball”. The noun eye was extant at the time, as was the concept of a ball being something round, but that Shakespeare was the one to take the two principles and conflate them. It turns out he didn’t [see the comments below this post], but presumably someone did, and that’s all I really need to be the case for this opening paragraph.
In much the same way, Richard Austin Freeman’s observation that we had stories in which we saw criminals commit a crime — ‘The Suicide of Kiaros’ (1897) by L. Frank Baum, say (which you can find here, incidentally) — and those in which we saw detectives solve a crime — c.f. Edgar Allan Poe, Baroness Orczy, Arthur Morrison — but never both at once resulted in a conflation that persists to this day.
Would it be possible to write a detective story in which from the outset the reader was taken entirely into the author’s confidence, was made an actual witness of the crime and furnished with every fact that could possibly be used in its detection? Would there be any story left when the reader had all the facts? I believed that there would.
Interestingly, Freeman claims in his preface to have been influence by “[t]he offer by a popular author of a prize to the reader who should identify the criminal in a certain ‘detective story’…”, and I’m curious whether anyone knows the story in question. The obvious assumption would be The Four Just Men (1905), which so famously nearly bankrupted Edgar Wallace, but the question in that case was “Howdunnit?” rather than “Whodunnit?”. Answers on a postcard, please…
This collection, then, contains four inverted mysteries — ‘The Case of Oscar Brodski’ (1910), ‘A Case of Premeditation’ (1910), ‘The Echo of a Mutiny’, a.k.a. ‘Death on the Girder’ (1911), and ‘A Wastrel’s Romance’, a.k.a. ‘The Willowdale Mystery’ (1910) — in which the first chapter relates events leading up to, during, and immediately following the crime, and the second is Thorndyke’s investigation as related by Christopher Jervis, who fills what might lazily be termed the Watson role. A fifth story, ‘The Old Lag’ (1912), then takes the more traditional approach in giving us a crime with an unknown perpetrator, which represents a difference in approach in several ways that we shall get into (the least of which being that Jervis tells it in its entirety).
Interesting to note, too, that the excellent and indispensable FictionMags Index website shows ‘A Case of Premeditation’ and ‘A Wastrel’s Romance’ being published before ‘The Case of Oscar Brodski’ — Freeman says in the introduction that ‘Brodski’ was written first, and it’s famous for being the “first” inverted mystery, but from a public perspective it would seem not to be the case, and you’d expect at least someone to have passed comment on this before now. Maybe they have, I dunno; I can’t track down every piece of commentary on a theme. Just thought there’d be more confusion about this in the genera wisdom around them. Anyhoo, rather than go through these stories one at a time, I thought I’d attempt a more analytical overview of the whole collection and see what can be teased out. Here’s hoping I don’t come to regret that.
1. Old Sins Cast Long Shadows…
In Premeditation, Mutiny, and Romance our criminals-to-be act because of a fear of exposure of their past misdeeds — and in Old Lag the man who looks most guilty at the outset is picked because of his obviously guilty past. I find it interesting that Freeman typically shies away from picking as a pawn any criminal who has served their time and moved on (the only time he does, that person is innocent) and instead focuses on those who have escaped prison, or evaded judgement altogether — the sense of their unpaid debts lingers around them, as if Fate itself were intervening to balance the lots. Exceptions could be argued for Silas Hickler, who will go on to kill Oscar Brodski — though there is “the little affair of the Weybridge policeman” in his past — and the Wastrel Augustus Bailey, who are merely thieves of some petty type, and whose treatment varies, you feel, on account of the actions they undertake once the spectre of murder is revealed to them.
2. …But That Doesn’t Mean You Have to be a Prick About It
Dr. John Thorndyke might well be emerging as my favourite fictional sleuth, not least on account of the human side to his nature that has crept through in the very little I’ve read of him. “It was clearly a case of blackmail,” he reflects at the end of one case, “and to kill a blackmailer — when you have no other defence against him — is hardly murder,” going on to call the criminal “a man of courage, ingenuity and resource”. Equally, following impersonation, assault, and arguably attempted murder by one protagonist, and faced with a victim who simply refuses to press charges and expresses the belief that Thorndyke will have “written me down a sentimental fool,” the good Doctor’s only reply is to
…[look] at her with an unwonted softening of his rather severe face and answer quietly, “It is written: Blessed are the Merciful.”
The notion of guilt, truth, and justice would be picked apart in some very intelligent ways in the forthcoming wave of GAD fiction, and it’s great to see Freeman getting in early with these very human reflections.
3. The (Mostly) Great Detective…
Another sense of progression the Freeman brings via Thorndyke is a newfound declaration that stands in stark contrast to the Holmes canon (Holmes, naturally, being the inevitable comparison as perhaps the most significant Great Detective preceding Thorndyke). No doubt in part because the reader already knows the conclusion to be reached, the inverted stories show Thorndyke in a most voluble mood when it comes to discussing his interpretations of significant events. Be it implicitly — enquiring about the proximity of level crossing to a body found on train tracks — or through explicit explanation, Jervis, and so the reader, is thrown very much into the light.
From discussing the signs of suffocation and the different directions that blood has run from a wound, through deductions about the location a coat is stored from the microscopic examination of the dust found upon it — making, it must be said, the forensics-obsessed late-20th century novels of Jeffery Deaver seem significantly less impressive along the way — via the condition of a cigarette being taken as an indicator of a felony, and historical considerations like the particular coating on a match-head indicating the profession of its possessor, the willingness of Freeman to include the reader in the circle of his detective’s deduction adds a somewhat thrilling air to seeing it unspool (Holmes’ monograph on 140 varieties of tobacco seems far less ridiculous after reading this collection, it must be said).
There are also some superb mini-treatises, such as the discussion about bloodhounds being used to track a scent and the fallacy that has sprung up around them, the moment he explains how after a few seconds examining a body he’s able to discount suicide or accident as possible avenues of explanation, or the expansion of a seemingly trivial detail from a witness statement that enables the solution of a most baffling murder, Thorndyke is less concerned with shocking legerdemain than with magnanimity. The clarity and simplicity with which Thorndyke’s deductions are made, too, is communicated in such an easy-going style that they’re robbed of any accusations of superciliousness. Mainly it’s just really cool.
Alas, the spirit of Holmes haunts all Great Detectives and cannot be entirely deracinated: thus, in ‘The Old Lag’ Thorndyke reverts to keeping his investigations and discoveries under a bushel until it may be cast aside for maximum effect — suggesting an apparently frivolous trip to the zoo in the middle of a case, say — but one feels that Freeman wants the inverted mysteries to shine brightest in this collection, and so this might be more of a plant than a legitimate attempt to write the best possible ‘straight’ detective story.
4. …and His (Mostly) Great Watson
Through a combination of laziness, convenience, and Nigel Bruce, the term ‘Watson’ has come to be a catch-all phrase inclined at anyone who hangs about with a fictional detective long enough to end up embroiled in a few of their cases. To a certain extent, this ignores the value and purpose of John H. Watson, who was there to misunderstand and ease the reader past the correct conclusions while also providing a window onto the extravangances of Sherlock Holmes’ methods. Watson of the Doyle canon isn’t actually a stupid man — the only time Holmes has cause to criticise Watson’s intelligence, it’s a ploy on Holmes’ part that he’s at pains to explain once the solution is revealed — but the tendency these days (blame, as I say, Nigel Bruce) is to imagine him as one.
Anyone standing against the refulgent light of the Great Detective will inevitably cast a shadow, but Christopher Jervis casts less of one than the sobriquet of ‘Watson’ might suggest. Not only is Jervis’ voice a very pleasant one to read — though I shall leave it up to the reader and the era to decide how serious he’s being when he says “If there is one thing that the average woman detests more than another, it is an entirely reasonable man” — he’s trusted by Thorndyke to make forensic examinations of a crucial nature and reach conclusions that will provide key evidence which can be totalled to indicate a possible conclusion (one of the most pleasing things about the amassed deductions of Thorndyke and Jervis is that we’re never told that the conclusion reached is the answer…merely that it’s the most probable one).
Equally, in some small matters, Jervis has insights of his own to bring to the crime scenes, often in the face of police bafflement, elevating him nowhere close to Thorndyke’s level but certainly showing him to be an insightful, observant, and intelligent man, precisely the sort of person John Thorndyke would cart around to crime scenes. And he’s even capable of bringing out insights without prompting, such as attending a woman looking “like a person recovering from an anaesthetic” with a “square red patch on her face [that] rather suggested suffocation”. Again, Freeman isn’t smashing the archetype here, but he’s doing good work to stretch it perhaps further than anyone so far had bothered.
5. A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste
The opportunity to peek inside the workings of our killers’ mind is one that Freeman embraces wholeheartedly, showing a wonderful talent for an economy of prose and compactness of expression where the publication date might lead an uncertain reader to expect rather more, er, Edwardian volubility. Take the following:
There is something eminently unsatisfactory about a blackmailer. No arrangement with him has any permanent validity. No undertaking that he gives is binding. The thing which he has sold remains in his possession to sell over again. He pockets the price of emancipation, but retains the key of the fetters. In short, the blackmailer is a totally impossible person.
Or even this, as Oscar Brodski’s life hangs in the balance:
He felt his face growing hot, his brain full and intense, and there was a faint, high-pitched singing in his ears. He was conscious of watching his guest with a new and fearful interest, and, by sheer force of will, turned away his eyes; only to find them a moment later involuntarily returning to fix the unconscious man with yet more horrible intensity. And ever through his mind walked, like a dreadful procession, the thoughts of what that other man — the man of blood and violence — would do in these circumstances. Detail by detail the hideous synthesis fitted together the parts of the imagined crime, and arranged them in due sequence until they formed a succession of events, rational, connected and coherent.
The repeated refrain herein is that, while these men may not be of the firmest moral fibre, the principle of murder is something that steals upon them in an instant, and is often acted upon almost as quickly — the one exception, in which our killer goes to phenomenal lengths to disguise his crime, is hilarious both for how easily Thorndyke is able to unpick it and for the view taken that his “immediate aim [is] the removal of a superfluous unit of the population”.
Occasionally there is so much to achieve after the crime that the criminal is given no time to dwell upon their actions, but even in this Freeman doesn’t entirely rob us of the opportunity to examine how they must feel once the deed is achieved. One, having dispatched the “menace of his life” heads inside for a meal with a air of “peace and gladness”, where another, murdering for jewels, is at first almost desperate to fight the temptation sweeping over him:
The great stones of the tiara flashed in his very eyes. Over her shoulder, he could even see the gorgeous pendant, rising and falling on her bosom with ever-changing fires; and both her raised hands were a mass of glitter and sparkle, only the deeper and richer for the subdued light.
His heart throbbed with palpable blows that drummed aloud in his ears. The sweat trickled clammily down his face, and he clenched his teeth to keep them from chattering. An agony of horror — of deadly fear — was creeping over him—a terror of the dreadful impulse that was stealing away his reason and his will.
And then horror-stricken when proving unable to fight hard enough:
A sudden hideous compunction for this irrevocable thing that he had done surged through him, and he stood up clutching at his damp hair with a hoarse cry that was like the cry of the damned.
The jewels passed straightaway out of his consciousness. Everything was forgotten now but the horror of this unspeakable thing that he had done. Remorse incurable and haunting fear were all that were left to him.
It continues Freeman’s commitment to seeing these criminals as humans, rather than immediately stripping from them their humanity in a single act that we’re encouraged to sympathise with. The more you dig into it, the more revolutionary it becomes.
6. There Are People Everywhere
Indeed, Freeman seems to thoroughly enjoy stirring in little flashes of humanity wherever he can, belying the reputation of uninterrupted dryness which made me hesitate to read him.
My favourite example might well be the little to-and-for that Thordnyke shares with the local inspector in the Brodski murder who — when Thorndyke examines the microscopic traces of food in between Brodski’s teeth, his head having been separated from its body by the intervention of a train and several carriages — is moved to reflect:
“I was thinking, sir,” he said apologetically, “that it’s a bit off the track to be finding out what he had for dinner. He didn’t die of unwholesome feeding.”
Later on, entering Hickler’s house and finding the biscuits that his earlier inspection had allowed him to prophesy the following exchange flashes by fast enough for you to miss:
“How in the name of goodness did you know that there were whole-meal biscuits in the house, sir?” exclaimed the station-master.
“You’d be disappointed if I told you,” replied Thorndyke.
Equally, the sense of frustrated possibilities really seeps through in ‘A Wastrel’s Romance’ when a chance encounter with a woman from his past brings Augustus Bailey’s shame to the fore — rendering her “a vision of glittering splendour, compared with which Solomon in all his glory was a mere matter of commonplace bullion” that he does not deserve. And the Belfields of ‘The Old Lag’ represent polar ends of the spectrum in their approach to Thorndyke — the husband having fallen foul of Thorndyke’s brilliance in the past and now willing to put himself entirely at the detective’s mercy…
“And now tell us about your little affair,” said Thorndyke. “You say that you are innocent?”
“I swear it, doctor,” replied Belfield; adding, with great earnestness, “And you may take it from me, sir, that if I was not, I shouldn’t be here. It was you that convicted me last time, when I thought myself quite safe, so I know your ways too well to try to gammon you.”
…and the wife caustically untrusting, believing perhaps that the stain of ‘criminal’ could never be washed from her husband in the eyes of a man like Thorndyke.
“Where is my husband?” she demanded, as I closed the door; and then, catching sight of Thorndyke, she strode up to him with a threatening air and a terrified but angry face.
“What have you done with my husband, sir?” she repeated. “Have you betrayed him, after giving your word? I met a man who looked like a police officer on the stairs.”
It is perhaps characteristic that Thorndyke sees this accusation not as a slight against himself but rather as a “noble” expression of her commitment to her husband, vowing to “find out the scoundrel who tried to wreck her happiness”. The tendency with ‘character’ is to find it only in humorous passages, but Freeman gives the other end of the scale equally as much to do.
7. The Write Stuff
I can find no other way to introduce the fact that some of Freeman’s prose is simply exquisite. Take, for instance:
The wine merchant who should supply a consignment of petit vin to a customer who had ordered, and paid for, a vintage wine, would render himself subject to unambiguous comment. Nay! more; he would be liable to certain legal penalties. And yet his conduct would be morally indistinguishable from that of the railway company which, having accepted a first-class fare, inflicts upon the passenger that kind of company which he has paid to avoid. But the corporate conscience, as Herbert Spencer was wont to explain, is an altogether inferior product to that of the individual.
Or the solitude of a lighthouse parsed here:
Now that his gruff companion was gone, a strange loneliness had fallen on the lighthouse. The last of the homeward-bound ships had long since passed up the Princes Channel and left the calm sea desolate and blank. The distant buoys, showing as tiny black dots on the glassy surface, and the spindly shapes of the beacons which stood up from invisible shoals, but emphasized the solitude of the empty sea, and the tolling of the bell buoy on the Shivering Sand, stealing faintly down the wind, sounded weird and mournful.