After a two month blogging hiatus in which I cleared a lot of lingering chaff from my TBR, it was wonderful to pick The D’Arblay Mystery (1926) as the first book for my return and love the absolute socks off of it. Having now acclimatised myself to the faintly pedantic verbiage of Richard Austin Freeman, I’m happy to acknowledge my parsimony in giving the masterful Mr. Pottermack’s Oversight (1930) — my first encounter with the author’s long-form work — a mere four stars and to correct that error here with the gloriously involving puzzle of Julius D’Arblay’s murder. While in many ways a thoroughly unsurprising book, in the ones that count it is joy unconfined to my GAD-happy soul.
The framing — the discovery by our narrator, newly-qualified young doctor Stephen Gray, of Julius D’Arblay’s body in a shallow pond while D’Arblay’s beautiful daughter Marion is searching for her elderly father in the same stretch of woodland — hits every grace note you’d expect from a story-form that grew out of essentially romantic and sensation literature. We have, of course, the class-conscious assumptions of such a time that marry to the confusions of the plot in the same breath…
What could the explanation be? There seemed to be but three possibilities, and two of them could hardly be entertained. The idea of intoxication I rejected at once. The girl was evidently a lady, and her father was presumably a gentleman who would not be likely to be wandering abroad drunk; nor could a man who was sober enough to have reached the pond have been so helpless as to be drowned in its shallow waters.
…plus the usual obscure items — a coin! a button! — that grubstake the plot and prove Things Are More Complex Than They Seem. You’ll not be shocked to learn that a young couple fall in love, and someone who presents themself as harmless turns out to be an utter cad (er, spoilers?), but what might surprise is how damn brilliantly all this expected impedimenta proves to be used. What elevates this to such venerated heights in my opinion is that Freeman is simply delightful to read, beholden to the trappings of this newfangled detective literature and yet weaving it in patterns that are at once obscure and delightful to observe.
There’s the light touch for trenchant introduction that permeates everything when first met: Dr. Thorndyke’s assistant Polton (we’re pre-Jervis here, events taking place some 20 years prior to their writing) smiling so that “the multitudinous wrinkles that covered his face arranged themselves into a sort of diagram of geniality”, the categorisation of Hoxton in London’s East End as leaving “the impression that the houses, and indeed the entire streets, have been picked up second-hand…a grey, colourless, mouldy quality…a quality which even communicates itself to the inhabitants, so that one gathers the impression that the whole neighbourhood was taken as a going concern”, the shamelessly well-intentioned quackery of Solomon Usher, or simply that the first paragraph of practically every chapter is a delight in both setting tone and progressing action.
Equally, where era-determined stiff-upper-lipped Britishness might presume some awkwardness in confronting elements of the plot, Freeman ploughs some wonderfully fertile ground. See Marion D’Arblay shrugging off Gray’s concerns that the inquest into her father’s death may cause her distress by dismissing everything following his murder as simply “the drab accompaniments that bring home the reality of what has happened.” Or Gray’s own realisation when Marion and her companion Miss Boler quibble over the timing of afternoon tea that “[w]e go into a house of mourning and are almost scandalized by its cheerfulness, forgetting that whereas to us the bereavement is the one salient fact, to the bereaved there is the necessity of taking up afresh the threads of their lives.” And, following attempts of the lives of both Gray and Miss D’Arblay, Thorndyke’s candour leaves us and them in no doubt as to the assailant they’re dealing with: “he appears to have killed D’Arblay to secure his own safety, and he is now attempting to kill Miss D’Arblay, apparently for the same reason. And he will kill you and he will kill me if our existence is inconvenient or dangerous to him.”
Thorndyke is, of course, a delight. As my reading of Golden Age detection has deepened, I have undoubtedly become more a fan of the ‘ordinary man’ sleuth cut from Inspector French’s cloth than of the superman detectives who owe their lives to Sherlock Holmes, and Thorndyke seems to bridge that gap effortlessly. Capable of wonderfully swift insight and yet equally prepared to be baffled and cudgel out whatever connections he can make if only to dismiss them, he’s probably going to turn out to be one of the loves of my life. Plus, his comportment throughout is smoothly confident without any jarring hints of braggadocio or cronyism in his conduct: his twinkling joy at Gray’s first entreaties — “There is no wrong time for a queer case. Let me hang up my hat and fill my pipe and then you can proceed to make my flesh creep” — his firm friendship with and mutual respect for the ubiquitous Polton, and the equanimity with which he greets all developments no matter how unexpected and how impregnable it may make the scheme appear are all delightful to witness and perfectly sustained.
Plot-wise, we’re also in very, very good hands. This is my third novel by Freeman, and the first to actually provide elements of puzzle all the way through, so that come Thorndyke’s final chapter summation I actually had things I didn’t know and so appreciated the incisive monologue to which we’re treated in which all confusion is cast asunder. Some of it you’ll definitely get, of course — and, for a trained medical man, Gray does have a worrying element of Nigel Bruce’s John Watson™ about him at times — but a desire for fair-play bafflement will be requited here, no doubt. Pleasingly, too, while no doubt taking it seriously, it’s great to know that Freeman isn’t taking this so seriously as to throttle all the fun out of it: the absurdist, heart-in-mouth comedy of Gray being trailed by multiple pursuers, say, or his (internal) reaction to the platitude of how peaceful and restful a recently deceased patient appears being that “the inmates of coffins are not in general much addicted to boisterous activity.”
And we haven’t even gotten to the mystery of Simon Bendelow or the mysterious vanishing of Mr. Polton’s eyelashes…but then it’s generally good practice to to leave something untouched for the interested reader to discover for themselves. I must say, this was lovely. Another 30 books like this would round out my year beautifully.
R. Austin Freeman reviews on The Invisible Event
The Eye of Osiris, a.k.a. The Vanishing Man (1911)
The Singing Bone, a.k.a. The Adventures of Dr. Thorndyke [ss] (1912)
The D’Arblay Mystery (1926)
Mr. Pottermack’s Oversight (1930)