2020 will linger in the memory for many reasons, but I’m going to try to remember it as the year in which I discovered the joy of R. Austin Freeman’s Dr. John Thondyke. I had previously read, and entirely forgotten about, the impossible crime short story ‘The Aluminium Dagger’ (1909), but it is the novel Mr. Pottermack’s Oversight (1930) — the plot of which is proposed by Thorndyke herein, anticipating Agatha Christie’s use of the same foreshadowing in The A.B.C. Murders (1936) of Cards on the Table (1936) — that I shall consider my first bread with Freeman. And As a Thief in the Night (1928) caps an invigorating year of author-discovery.
In time, no doubt, I shall encounter a Thorndyke book I’m not too keen on, but thanks to a deft steering by Nick of The Grandest Game in the World the four subsequent titles I’ve encountered this year have all, in their own way, been at least very, very good indeed. Given how little one can find online about As a Thief in the Night, it may have evaded my notice for quite some time without Nick’s intervention, and — since you can see I loved it — I’m extremely grateful to him for the nudges that brought me here. However, the book raises difficulties from a blogging perspective because, I’d wager, one could easily read too much about it and have some of the surprise which so delighted me taken away. It’s a delicate balance of plot and character and, in communicating the effect upon those of us who love it, we might veer into incautious expression which discloses too much and guards too little. Thus, I shall be very, very careful in the succeeding rapture.
When the Reverend Amos Monkhouse descends from his Yorkshire parish to the London home of his brother Harold for the first time in several months, he is shocked at the decline in his sickly brother’s condition. Two immutable facts emerge: firstly, that the denizens of Harold’s house have become inured to his poor constitution and permanent convalescence, and secondly that the most pronounced periods of his ill health seem to coincide with his wife Barbara’s absences from home on business associated with the women’s suffrage movement. How, then, can Barbara’s presence be such an obstacle to whomever seems to be poisoning Harold, and who could the malefactor be?
This and no more you’ll get from me by way of plot particulars. Freeman is, by dint of the era in which he wrote, sometimes rather easy to anticipate, but for some reason the man holds me in his thrall while I’m reading these books, and I find myself simply delighting in the details of his characters, settings, and scientific treatises (herein, an illustrative demonstration of X-rays in chapter 10, ‘A Greek Gift’) and forgetting to pull it together ahead of time. The tiny — really, almost Christianna Brand-esque in its minuteness — cast of suspects and the relationships they enjoy means that even the slightest additional indication will have you anticipating, and that’s the one thing it’s best not to do. Don’t even read the back of the book, not least because the House of Stratus edition pictured above doesn’t really summarise the plot correctly (they’ve only had 92 years in which to check it, I suppose…), and those that do will doubtless say too much.
If I may continue with comparisons to Freeman’s detective fiction kin, this is also startlingly like something from the pen of John Dickson Carr at times, with eerie, sinister prose…
…the face was not quite the face that I had known. So it has always seemed to me with the dead. They have their own distinctive character which belongs to no living man — the physiognomy of death; impassive, expressionless, immovable; fixed for ever, or at least, until the changes of the tomb shall obliterate even its semblance of humanity.
…married to one of those playful ‘too many clues’ mysteries which “at the first glance…seemed to bristle with suspicious facts. But when those facts were scrutinized they meant nothing” — too many bottles, too much of the wrong poison, no opportunity for the delivery of the actual poison, and the frankly bizarre problem of no motive for the crime; Monkhouse is “universally liked in a rather lukewarm fashion” and pecuniary matters can be laid aside since the terms of his will ensure no-one will be better off with him dead than alive. Freeman doesn’t crank the handle of this puzzle anywhere near as hard as Carr might, he’s far more refined, but any fears of antediluvian dustiness in his weaving of schemes may be dismissed.
Thorndyke is brought into the affair by our narrator, and friend of the Monkhouse menage, Rupert Mayfield, a junior barrister who Wastons in exemplary fashion by one minute showing perfect acuity…
I drew a deep breath and stepped forward briskly with a feeling of emancipation that I condemned as selfish and disloyal even as I was sensible of its intensity. It was almost with a sense of exhilaration that I strode along, a normal, unnoticed wayfarer among ordinary men and women, enveloped by no cloud of mystery, overhung by no shadow of crime.
…and the next becoming so dense that you fear half of London might become lost in him. Vacillating on an almost tectonic scale about Thorndyke’s bringing a criminal charge against someone he, Mayfield, might know very well indeed, and by turns obfuscating and then brazenly declaring evidence he has gathered, your heart goes out to him a bit, but he’ll try your patience in chapter 12 — it’s okay, breathe deeply and move on. Though possibly my biggest laugh of the year came from his going to a superhuman amount of effort to leap to a conclusion of a charge being levelled against someone…and deciding against warning them because it’s late and they’ve probably been in bed for a while now.
The brevity of the cast list allows time for some extended character work — the neurotic, over-attentive secretary Anthony Wallingford is wonderfully realised — and you have to admire the way Barbara Monkhouse confronts the media attention by straightening her back and declaring grimly “It seems that we are having greatness thrust upon us”. Consider, too, just how long it is — almost a quarter of the book, if memory serves — before the position of Madeline Norris in the house is laid before the reader: it’s not a shocking or even terribly relevant reveal, but in the universe of the story it emerges in such a natural way that I couldn’t help but be taken with Freeman’s unhurried manner. Everything will come out in its time, you just have to trust in the metronomic realisation of his scheme.
There’s something for the curious reader for an historical perspective, too: having just wrapped my head around grains and grams, here I found out about minims and drachms — ye gods, no wonder there were so many accidental poisonings — giving the opportunity for a lovely piece of witness testimony from Madeline Norris at one stage. Additionally, the concept of a rubbish destructor — essentially a central location where rubbish was burned and electricity produced, as is in place in today — is casually mentioned here, and seems to have been a practice in place since at least the early 1900s. Lovely to see, too, Freeman’s momentary frustration with the trope of “the usual over-intelligent juryman” when an inquest is called; naturally I have no idea how common this was in reality, but as a trapping of detective fiction it’s a virtual certainty.
I’m starting to get now a sense of the trappings of Freeman’s particular corner of this fiction, too — the easy bonhomie of Thorndyke’s assistant Mr. Polton offering up “a sort of compound smile inasmuch as every wrinkle seemed to have a smile of its own”, the three-man pursuit in which someone shadowing a second person finds themself shadowed by a third, and, of course, the patient, compassionate explanation of events that Thorndyke offers come the end. This third point was a source of frustration to me at my first encounter of it in Mr. Pottermack’s Oversight, but it’s the part of these books I’ve come to enjoy the most — the clarity, the authority, the complete absence of opprobrium in Thorndyke’s summaries makes them pure delights, and long may that continue (though, good grief, the first chart he offers at the end here is unscientific to a degree that warrants his being struck from the medical register).
Freeman is, like his one-third namesake Mr. Crofts, apparently writing the exact sort of thing I want to read. If you have enjoyed any other RAF, I can virtually guarantee you’ll love this — read no more reviews (not even Nick’s!), go into it as blank as you can, and enjoy. And to think that so much of this franchise remains for me to experience in the years ahead…see, 2020 wasn’t all bad.