#703: The D’Arblay Mystery (1926) by R. Austin Freeman

D'Arblay Mystery

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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

43 thoughts on “#703: The D’Arblay Mystery (1926) by R. Austin Freeman

      • Thanks, Sergio — the break turned out to be doubly helpful, since the new WordPress setup took a lot of getting used to, but hopefully I’ve wrapped my head around it and we’re good to go as before. Here’s hoping there’s plenty to talk about in the months ahead 🙂

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  1. Welcome back, JJ – and glad you got off to such a pleasant start with this book! 🥳

    I should hunt it down – I’ve always shied away from this author as I’ve heard that he makes his mysteries overly medical. So it’s good to hear your take on this title! 🤓✨

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    • The Thorndyke cases I’ve read are, naturally, very medical — author and sleuth both are qualified doctors, after all — but the dryness I’d been led to anticipate hasn’t presented itself as fully as I’d feared. The gorgeous human drama in Pottermack, or the sheer brilliance of the deductions in The Singing Bone collection, are delightfully realised; he’s got a superb eye for individuals, and plots in a most engaging way. As a writer of detective fiction, he’s honestly one of the most wonderful discoveries I’ve made in recent years.

      I hope you have a chance to read and enjoy him soon, and thanks for the re-welcome 🙂

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  2. Welcome back, JJ! Glad you enjoyed the book and remember thoroughly liking it when I read it, but a reread is probably in order. Good to see you’re giving Christopher Bush another shot.

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  3. Great points about Freeman’s surprising lightness of touch and Thorndyke’s bridging the super/ordinary archetypes. These seem like seriously underrated books. It’s a real boost to have you back and forging ahead!

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    • Thanks for the kind words — a break was needed, but it’s weird to suddenly be reading books and not be discussing them 🙂 Not, mind you, that the majority of what I read was worth discussing, and having those clogging up my TBR may in part have contributed the to general malaise I was feeling before hiatus.

      However, that’s mostly dealt with now, and the chance to rave about something that pleased me this much was a perfect reminder of what got me into this blogging lark in the first place.

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  4. Last week I stumbled upon six R Austin Freeman books for a reasonable price – all of the Avon / Pocket / Popular Library type – and snatched them up, so there will be some Freeman in my future. I think most of these are short story collections, although maybe two are full novels. Your reviews have me really looking forward to these. The only Freeman that I’ve read is The Aluminum Dagger, and I don’t even remember what that one was about (kind of hard to keep track of stories when binging on that Black Lizard book…)

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    • I’d forgotten about ‘Aluminium Dagger’ when I read Pottermack…and, in all honesty, I don’t really remember it that well anyway (it’s one of those “Er, this shouldn’t seem impossible” tales, isn’t it, like Holmes’ return in ‘The Empty House’?). I might take on another of RAF’s short story collections as my next read of his, because on my slim reading of him to date he seems to apply himself equally well to the long and the short form, and I’m interested to see if that’s pure luck of selection.

      Either way, plenty more RAF in my future, anyway. I bought ten of them at once, so I’m definitely gonna read ’em…

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  5. JJ – it’s great to see you’re back. Your insights, wit and humour make your blog enjoyable. I have learned a tremendous amount about GAD from you.

    I have never read Freeman before and Pottermack didn’t appeal as I am not the fan that others are of inverted mysteries. I like my culprits revealed at the end preferrably via a surprising twist. This one sounds good so ordered D’Arblay today on the strength of your review and look forward to reading it.

    P.S. Is it just me who thinks that Ben over at The Green Capsule has an amazing talent repeatedly to find rare books at absolute bargain prices? I think next he will say he found a near fine, Death of Jezebel first edition with dust jacket intact autographed by Christianna Brand for a dollar.

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    • Ben is the only living person on earth – the ONLY LIVING PERSON ON EARTH – who possesses and has read Brand’s A Ring of Roses. It can’t be had for any price, and it’s the only title not on an e-book. Frankly, it’s the only thing I want for Christmas . . .

      As for Freeman, JJ, well . . . I don’t know. As I mentioned to you, I might be heading in the other direction. But I’ll look forward to reading about your other discoveries and maybe choose one of the best.

      Meanwhile, I am in WordPress hell for sure! Can you explain to me how to access my media library when I’m creating a post rather than constantly have to EMBED the same photo into the damn draft??? All this crap pops up when I’m writing, but I can’t figure any of it out.

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      • As I’ve mentioned to you, Brad, I find my interest skewing earlier — so if you skew later, we still average out at the Golden Age.

        As for Worpdress Hell…I sympathise. I spent about — no exaggeration — six or seven hours writing, editing, formatting, and playing around with this post, and eventually figured out most of the foibles of this new setup. I dunno how to explain your problem, but if you wanna talk about it via email, let me know and I’ll do whatever I can to keep you blogging — I wanna see how your Silver Age Adventure turns out, after all 😄

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    • I’m still kicking myself for passing up a $70 edition of The Death of Jezebel. That’s waaaay more than I’d ever pay for any book, but it’s sinking in that it will be a long time before I see it for that price. And man, I really want to read it.

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      • About six months ago, I bought a copy of DoJ with the intent of passing it onto you, but it was not in the condition advertised and so I returned it to the seller with a stern warning about your standards. Keep the faith, we’ll get there eventually.

        Or, hey, maybe common sense will prevail and someone will reprint it. Because that’s one of those books whose OOPness just baffles me. Seriously, I clearly do not understand how publishing works and what the priorities of various rights holders are…

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        • There’s actually a $90 edition with dust jacket on eBay right now in the UK, plus $30 in shipping for me. That’s actually a pretty damn good price and I’ll admit I was tempted. But, yeah, that’s ridiculous for a book.

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        • I found a preposterously reasonably-priced copy of Curme Grey’s rare and expensive Murder in Millennium VI in lovely condition about a year ago now, and the seller proceeded to post it to an address that didn’t exist. Still haunts me.

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          • ooh that is galling! I once got given a motorcycle book rather than another Ames novel I tracked down. I don’t imagine the person who was waiting for the motorcycle book realised the significance of the book they got instead!

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    • Appreciate the kind words, Scott, and I can’t deny that its nice to be talking about these books again. If can persuade you to pick up a book by RAF at some point — and, hey, there’s no rush, so feel free to wait for me to road-test a few more if you like — and you find in him something you enjoy and want to pursue…well, that would be just grand.

      As to Ben…yeah, it’s scary. It helps that that secondhand book market is so much bigger in the States — there’s stuff on eBay from US sellers at staggeringly low prices — but it’s also tantamount to Ben’s persistence and canny buying. I’d ask him to tell us how he does it, but then we’d all start doing it and ruin his hunting grounds… 🙂

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      • It’s honestly just a matter of perseverance. Keep looking regularly, and have a set limit in mind. Of course, my limit started at $5 and then morphed to $8, and then $10, and now $12… Bear in mind, that’s for the books that I really want. For most books I’m still trying to stick to the $5 mark.

        A few months ago I decided that I wanted the Dell map back of Dead Man’s Gift by Zelda Popkin (review pending). At first I could only find it for $20-25. But I just kept at it and eventually got it for maybe $8. It’s not so much about the breadth of your search, but just continually going back.

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        • As it happens I’ve just paid — hang on, I’ll convert it — about 20 USD for a copy of Dead Man’s Gift, small world! Maybe I should review that next, or after the Christopher Bush I’ve got lined up, and we could see how our takes on it compare…

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          • $20?!?!?! Goodness, the books I’d have…

            I haven’t started my review of Dead Man’s Gift yet, so we could always do a collaboration, although… not… sure… this is the one we want to do…

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            • Oh, that’s an uncommon level of expenditure for me, too, but I’d been looking for that book for yeeears. Hopefully I’ll like it more than I’m intuiting you did…

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  6. Glad to see you back. I missed your insightful, and always witty, posts. And to start back with a Freeman too. Bold move. Dr Thorndyke’s Casebook is currently on my shelf, waiting to be read (soon, I promise), and looks like from your review, I’ll need to pick D’Arblay up sooner rather than later.

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    • Well, it’s been lovely sitting on the sidelines and watching you kids doing so well without me, but then my narccicism kicked in and I wanted some attention back on me 😄

      And, hey, there’s no point coming back with a bad book, y’know? I read plenty of those — Of Which We Shall Never Speak — while on hiatus, and will doubtless commit myself to reviewing plenty of them in the weeks and months ahead. So it’s lovely to know that me Freemen are both there to dig me out of a pit of despair when I need them, and and you’ll be there cheering us on as we climb.

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  7. I’m very glad to see Freeman getting some good press, as he is one of my favourite authors. We really should be grateful to House of Stratus for reprinting his work, although you do sometimes get the impression that the person who wrote the blurbs hadn’t actually read the book – e.g. they apparently think that “The Shadow of the Wolf” is a collection of short stories, which it isn’t!

    Which other books by RAF are on your TBR list?

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    • Ha, I actually have Shadow of the Wolf, and was thinking I’d read that next on account of it being short stories…which I guess I must have gotten from the blurb. Godammit!

      I sought advice on where to go with Freeman after Pottermack, and bought a selection of the most suggested titles, plus a few thrown in just because. So, while in time I plan to get everything, the unread ones on my TBR at present are:

      The Red Thumb Mark
      The Mystery of 31 New Inn
      The Shadow of the Wolf
      The Magic Casket [ss]
      As a Thief in the Night
      Pontifex, Son, and Thorndyke
      The Penrose Mystery
      Mr. Polton Explains

      And, yes, we should be very grateful to House of Stratus for furnishing us with the complete Thorndyke 9and others) in an era of lousy, cheap ebooks editions of an author who deserves frankly far better.

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      • “The Shadow of the Wolf” is another of RAF’s inverted novels (the others are “For the Defence: Dr Thorndyke” and “When Rogues Fall Out” (this last being only partly inverted)). Although Pottermack is probably the best of the inverted stories, Wolf is pretty good too.

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        • Nick @ Grandest Game recommended that I follow D’Arblay with As a Thief in the Night, but I’m tempted by another inverted before too much time has passed. Though I could read an inverted mystery not by RAF — and in fact my next FWC is due to be 12:30 from Croydon and I’ve just bought Murder Isn’t Easy by Richard Hull…

          See, people think running a blog is all champagne and flowers, but there are real, serious decisions to be made at every turn 😟😄

          Thanks for letting me know which are the inverted titles, too, I have made a note of them on my many, many book-tracking documents.

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            • Noted, many thanks.

              I really should go back and look into that spoilers database I was kicking around a while ago. It would be very handy, and interesting to compile, I’m sure.

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  8. It is interesting to read other people’s reactions to authors I enjoy as it can bring into focus why i enjoy them. Freeman is interesting as he is more of a contemporary of Chesteron in age, but in part because of World War 1 his writing career is very much in the Golden Age. I do like the interactions between him and Polton (for me it works than Wimsey and Bunter) and characters such as Miss Boler and Dr Usher (who in class terms fall into a sort of no man’s land) while in some ways are comic relief are also treated as worthy of respect. The old GA detection web site has an interesting page on Freeman (Nick Fuller was a contributor).I also enjoy Badger and Miller as the main police detectives interacting with Thorndyke – they are differentiated in for me a convincing manner.

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    • I think it was in our discussion about The Mysterious Affair at Styles where Brad made the point that the detective fiction authors writing before Christie didn’t really come through with her into the Golden Age. Freeman is that rare exception, and it’s fun to see him be late Victorian in the early stuff I’ve read and then update as the trappings have established themselves by the time of Mr. Pottermack’s Oversight. I think he will probably turn out to have straddled the genre development in a way that few others did, because they quit before or came in after.

      You’re right, too, about the classist no man’s land that Usher and Miss Boler occupy — how that’s more of a consideration for the older attitudes Freeman holds, and how it goes on to become less of an issue as the decades pass. “The doctor” becomes a key figure in the community by 1930, and for all the disdain poured on the ‘lower’ servant classes we know the regard held for a batman or a beloved companion (one thing I neglected to mention in this review, and I’m kicking myself now that I remember, is that lovely moment “Arabella is good enough for anyone” — god, that just leaves me so warm and happy inside) and how, yes, this developed into these people being seen as people.

      Man, there’s so much that’s so great about this era of this style of fiction. No wonder we obsess on it so heavily, eh?

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  9. I’d love to give Freeman another go, as long as it’s not an inverted mystery. The inverted mystery was in my opinion an amusing gimmick which was played out by 1914. I’d be quite happy to never read another inverted mystery.

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    • An interesting claim that, being largely agreed to have started with Freeman in 1910, the inverted mystery ran out of steam in a mere four years. Any taker son this argument? 🙂 I can see why they wouldn’t appeal, however — it took a long time for them to make sense to me, and there are plenty of GAD gimmicks that I find myself tiring of quite rapidly.

      I’ll definitely keep plugging away with Freeman; he’s been a delight so far, and I have another seven or eight on my shelves. Maybe one of them will catch your eye in due course…

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      • An interesting claim that, being largely agreed to have started with Freeman in 1910, the inverted mystery ran out of steam in a mere four years.

        I’d say that Freeman’s inverted mysteries were genuine detective fiction. Too many of the later inverted mysteries by other writers are essentially psychological crime novels which is an entirely separate genre from detective fiction. The psychological crime novel is a genre that is too often affected by self-indulgence and by the authors’ literary pretensions (and often they’re simply not good enough to get away with those literary pretensions).

        But of course it’s purely a matter of personal taste. Inverted mysteries are not much to my taste. But I like hard-boiled pulp crime which is a genre that a lot of GAD enthusiasts dislike.

        I think the problem with the genuine detective fiction type of inverted mystery is that it’s a gimmick. It’s a gimmick that Freeman used with great skill early on but it’s a gimmick that was always going to run out of steam pretty quickly.

        On the other hand I’m a big Columbo fan and Columbo was all inverted mysteries!

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        • Ah, yes, an excellent distinction and one I had not considered — I supposed I think of “inverted” and “detection” as near-synonyms, but I can see how there’s a streak of dilution that would creep in via this door. After all, if the reader knows who the criminal is, then the need to prove it doesn’t fall quite so heavily on the author…because you already know! Hence, yes, they tend to be more studies of the criminal than pure inverted detective story-telling.

          I’m encouraged by the fact that the authors who are typically considered to have done the inverted mystery best (Freeman, Crofts, etc) were also fairly sparing about their use of it. It’s when an author seeks to make a study of that style of story, like with Roy Vickers and his Department of Dead Ends, that the material starts to show holes and patches pretty quickly.

          Columbo benefits from being able to use a wider scope of detection techniques, too — you so can listen to the dial tone of a phone, or see a photograph of a man who’s been caught speeding while also killing his wife 50 miles away. The increased range of possible clewing is so, so much broader, and I think that really helps. Sure, some of them are laboured and full of patches and holes, but the overall quality is good because the people writing it knew how to exploit the possibilities.

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