Summoned one evening to the house of a bedridden man — and taken there in a carriage with blacked-out windows to obfuscate the location — Dr. Christopher Jervis suspects poisoning but is assured by the people looking after Mr. Graves that no poison could have been administered. Some weeks later, he is summoned a second time and, after administering some treatment that sees Mr. Graves begin to revive, is dismissed and never hears of the patient or his carers again. Between these two visits, however, Jervis consulted Dr. John Thorndyke, which proves to be most fortuitous when further investigation into the matter becomes important.
In the meantime, Thorndyke and Jervis are drawn into the matter of Stephen Blackmore, named as sole legatee in his uncle Jeffrey’s will. When Jeffery executes another will of identical intent only a short while before he dies, a small matter of wording leaves Stephen potentially losing out on a sizeable inheritance. Why, then, when a perfectly good will of the exact same intent existed already, would Jeffery write this second will? Thorndyke, delighted to learn that all other avenues have been explored and that he is frankly the final throw of the dice — “It leaves me unembarrassed by the possibility of failure” — begins to comb through the evidence and, wouldn’t you know it, finds some stuff going on that no-one would have previously expected.
My venturing forth into the Dr. Thorndyke stories of Richard Austin Freeman has been a delight matched in recent years only by the joy I’ve found in his one-third namesake Mr. Freeman Wills Crofts. It doesn’t hurt that both authors adopt similar approaches, with Thorndyke’s late expanding on his abilties sounding not unlike Crofts’ manner of constructing his plots:
“I would devise an ingenious fraud and would plan it in detail, taking every precaution that I could think of against failure or detection, considering, and elaborately providing for, every imaginable contingency… Then when my plans were as complete as I could make them, and I could think of no way in which to improve them, I changed sides and considered the case from the standpoint of detection. I analysed the case, I picked out its inherent and unavoidable weaknesses, and, especially, I noted the respects in which a fraudulent proceeding of a particular kind differed from the bona fide proceeding that it simulated. The exercise was invaluable to me.”
The most pleasing thing about this is how intelligently Freeman treats his audience, with legitimate detection followed through rigorously on the way to solid, convincing conclusions. This book, being some 109 years old when I read it, will surprise very few with its eventual location, but the journey with all its rigour and care is sheer manna from heaven for those of us with the taste for such undertakings.
Of course, plot minutiae will only get you so far; one should also be able to write entertaingly. Be it Jervis’ perverse intention to overwhelm Thorndyke with details in relating an experience and finding himself “somewhat in the condition of a cider-apple that has just been removed from a hydraulic press” as a result of the good doctor’s gluosity for information, Thordyke’s delight at the sheer number of railway bridges Jervis was taken under while on his mysterious carriage journey (“What, again! It’s like a game of croquet…”), or the Great Detective-baiting declarations that hint at the more human concerns at Thorndyke’s core (“When one throws off a subtly philosophic obiter dictum one looks to the discerning critic to supply the meaning.”), there’s a lovely sense of playfulness behind the serious matter of detecting a “sordid, callous, cold-blooded crime of a type that is to me utterly unforgivable and incapable of extenuation.”
“[Y]our subtle criminal often plans his crime like a genius, but he generally executes it like a fool.”
Jervis Watsons pretty hard in this — “I shook my head — and inwardly suspected it of being rather a thick head” — but is also an educated man with intelligence enough to know, for instance, that handing a prescription to a man who he suspects might be a poisoner would give that man the information to deduce that poisoning is suspected. Equally, the difference between suspicion and proof of a criminal act is a fine and important one that Jervis is able to perceive wisely, and it’s not to the man’s shame that he is unable to discern, for instance, the importance of a piece of cuneiform (it amuses me hugely to see the cuneifrom inscription in question replicated in the text, as if the average reade is going to have a clue what’s going on…). One can see why Thorndyke entered into partnership with Jervis, and the move away from this intelligent man as Watson in later books is, I feel, a smart one.
The smorgasbord of trappings I have come to expect from these stories has, even at this early stage in Freeman’s career, taken on a degree of comforting familiarity: bizarre wills, the telling reconstruction of a piece of broken glass, the “benevolent walnut” that is Thorndyke’s inexhaustibly capable factotum Mr. Polton. Plus, one of the real delights of reading older books, the historical trifles sprinkled throughout both baffle and delight — references to “a wax match”, an actor having quit the stage who “blossomed out in connection with a bucket-shop in London” (??), Jervis delcaring that a criminal must have thought he and Thorndyke “a couple of noodles” when caught in less than intelligent behaviour, and whoever the hell Dick Swiveller was to call a situation “a staggerer”. I learned that a squint in one’s eye does not necessarily mean a Clint Eastwood impression, and there’s this wonderful reduction of the emerging detective fiction genre that made my heart sing:
“So we proceed in cases like this present one. Of the facts that are known to us we invent certain explanations. From each of those explanations we deduce consequences; and if those consequences agree with new facts, they confirm the explanation, whereas if they disagree they tend to disprove it.”
Even if the stuff about graphology isn’t pure bunkum, it is used to dismiss something into which an interesting amount of time had been placed, and it’s a shame to see it swept aside with such casual disregard. Additionally, this loses momentum in two or three chapters towards the end purely for the noble reason that Freeman wishes to get as much information in front of the reader before Thorndyke holds forth in the final chapter. However, the majority of what’s here holds up superbly for its age, and reinforces my rising interest in the pre-GAD works that paved the way between Holmes and the mortals who would follow. Interest in the genre, and the genre itself, has perdured for so long because of the exceptional work done by the likes of Freeman in making detection something the common man could engage in — even if only in fiction. To be treated like an equal was to become one of the founding principles of the Golden Age, and if you can find a better root of it than in the Thorndyke books I’d love to know about it.