At 1.30pm UK time today, the Bodies from the Library Conference starts online for the delectation of classic detection fans the world over. As my talk is due to be about detection, I thought I’d turn that into a flimsy excuse to write about one of my favourite discoveries of recent years: Dr. John Evelyn Thorndyke.
The Magic Casket (1927) is a collection of nine Thorndyke stories — I’m hugely grateful to Ronaldo Fagarazzi for providing me with correct publications dates and alternate titles — and I can’t shake the feeling that some of them belong in an earlier age (and not just because women’s suffrage forms the backbone of one of them). Much like Edmund Crispin’s collection Fen Country (1940), each of these stories are clear-sightedlyly built around one core idea; unlike Fen Country, these stories feel rather pedantic in their realisation, lending them the air of belonging to an era when the finer points of detection were rather more abstruse. They’re not without their points of charm or interest, but if you compared these stories to those in The Singing Bone (1912) I’d wager most people would believe these to be of the earlier provenance.
In the year before the final Sherlock Holmes story from Arthur Conan Doyle’s pen, it’s interesting to note how ‘The Magic Casket’ (1926) leans into a couple of Holmesian motifs: Thorndyke handing his Watson, Christopher Jervis, a handgun towards the end of the caper, say, or the admission that Thorndyke wanted to avoid “a flat ending to the adventure” as if aware of the narrative expectations. The essential idea here, too, feels like something out of a Holmes tale, and might be the closest I’ve yet seen Thorndyke veer into the territory of his illustrious forebear.
Freeman was, however, one of the first to move his Great Detective out of the shadow of Holmes — more about this on Zoom later — and a key difference here is in the acuity of Jervis, comapred to the equally medically trained Dr. J.H. Watson, MD. I agree with Dolores Gordon-Smith that Jervis is less of a character than Watson, but he’s also more of an actual functional human who comes across as someone with the necessary intelligence to have passed his courses. He still manages to overlook the salient points most of the time…
I found myself speculating curiously on my colleague’s proceedings. To me, suicide was written plainly on every detail of the case. Of course, we did not wish to take that view, but what other was possible? Had Thorndyke some alternative theory? Or was he merely, according to his invariable custom, making an impartial survey of everything, no matter how apparently trivial, in the hope of lighting on some new and informative fact?
…yet possesses savvy enough to recognise that the wounds on the suggested suicide in ‘Mr. Ponting’s Alibi’ (1927) have been made from left to right “as they would have…if self-inflicted”, or to spot the sudden change in a room’s furnishings later on in that same story. His reading of the myriad footprints in ‘The Pathologist to the Rescue’, a.k.a. ‘Thorndyke To The Rescue’, a.k.a. ‘Written in Blood’ (1927) is both correct and, once more, way off-beam, yet he’s able to understand the need for, and provide, the necessary distraction at a key moment of ‘The Naturalist at Law’, a.k.a. ‘The Clue Of The Lesser Duckweed’ (1926). It also tickles me to learn in ‘The Stalking Horse’, a.k.a. ‘The Affair at Densford Junction‘ (1922) that he and Thorndyke send messages to each other in code…can you imagine Watson grappling with a ciphertext?
There begins to show here, too, elements of his character: his shock when Thorndyke proposes some unabashed house-breaking in ‘The Trail of Behemoth’ (1926), or the admission at the end of ‘Gleanings from the Wreckage’, a.k.a. ‘Left By The Flames’ (1927) that the scenes of the guilty being arrested and carted away are often glossed over because he finds them “harrowing” and “intensely repugnant”. You’re also, I feel, encouraged to take at face value his impression that he has become “a connoisseur of footsteps” after years of listening to clients climb the stairs to 5A King’s Bench Walk — not here the satire of Arthur Hastings claiming he has developed the skill of insight while shaking his head over the peccadilloes of Hercule Poirot.
However, we aren’t drawn to the Great Detectives because of their Watson — Archie Goodwin aside, perhaps — and it’s squarely Thorndyke’s show throughout. Again, he is a step on from Holmes in (mostly!) remaining constrained by limits of his remit of medical jurisprudence: dismissing the problem of a possibly-bigamous man in ‘The Contents of a Mare’s Nest’, a.k.a. ‘The Strange Death Of Jonathan Ingle’ (1923) as “a matter for the probate court”, or content merely to “call at Scotland Yard on the way home and report what I have learned” rather than needing to be in at the death even though the resolution of a case has come about purely on account of his intervention. Indeed, the number of times here that the conclusion of a matter is related in an epilogue shows you where Freeman’s — and so Thorndyke’s — interest lies.
Those conclusions, incidentally, are unlikely to ever really catch you by surprise. On the presentation of each problem you can probably guess what the solution is going to be, which in part contributes to the air of antiquity that clings to this collection. However, the processes by which those answers are reached are delightful in their rigour. You’ll not follow some of it if you’re not an expert, but you cannot deny that the works of Doyle never contained anything like this:
“Now, good paper is practically pure cellulose; and if you dip a sheet of such paper into certain oxidising liquids, such as a solution of potassium chlorate with a slight excess of hydrochloric acid, the paper is converted into oxycellulose. But if instead of immersing the paper, you write on it with a quill or glass pen dipped in the solution, only the part which has been touched by the pen is changed into oxycellulose.”
The method by which the presence of two people is determined from blood samples in ‘The Pathologist to the Rescue’ is honestly fascinating (and a little terrifying, if we’re being honest), as is the simple oversight committed by several people in ‘Naturalist at Law’. Thordyke again and again demonstrates the value in the forensic, abjuring the easy conclusions and benefitting from “the folly of that kind of criminal who won’t let well alone” by seeking value in the obvious (tyre treads, footprints, dental plates) as well as the obscure. Superintendent Miller gets it (“Beautiful! beautiful! Absolutely distinctive! There can’t be another exactly like it in the world. It is as good as a fingerprint. For the Lord’s sake take care of it. It means a conviction if we can find the boot.”) but Inspector Badger is perhaps less convinced:
“Now if Dr. Thorndyke was here he would just sweep a bit of dust from the floor and collect any stray oddments and have a good look at them through his magnifier, and then we should know all about it. Can’t you do a bit in that line? There’s plenty of dust on the floor. And here’s a pin. Wonderful significant thing is a pin. And here’s a wax vesta; now, that ought to tell you quite a lot. And here is the end of a leather boot-lace — at least, that is what it looks like. That must have come out of somebody’s boot. Have a look at it, doctor, and see if you can tell me what kind of boot it came out of and whose boot it was.”
And then there are the delights that a reader takes purely from their own experience. I love knowing, for instance, that if you were found unconscious in South Kensington in 1926 you probably would have been taken to St. George’s Hospital, but now you probably wouldn’t (since it ran off one evening when no-one was looking and settled down further south). I love that if you look up “bobbery-monger” online, the first page of results are all the use of it in this collection. I love how changing fashions in travel attire render the workings of the borderline-impossible appearing body parts in ‘Pandora’s Box’ (1927) obscure to the modern reader. I love the fact that a one-scene charwoman has the Dickensian name of Mrs. Runt. And any appearance of Nathaniel Polton between now and my death is going to warm my heart — be he bringing in tea “with an air that seemed to demand an escort of choristers”, or rendering “a sort of gastronomic doxology” by plying a visitor with coffee and liqueurs, or working behind the scenes gleefully to produce the “smoker’s companion” that Thorndyke is able to put to such good use. We each take what we will from the books we read, and these are the sorts of delights I find in my fiction.
A curate’s egg, then, is The Magic Casket. Plot-wise there is little to surprise, and the innovations on display in the veracity of the processes would have been ten times more impressive ten years earlier, but there are trappings enough here for those willing to see more than just revelations in Freeman’s work. I cannot say that this collection is worthy of the adulations I have poured on Freeman and Thorndyke’s adventures elsewhere, and it’s not the best place to start if you’re new to the gang, but it’s a long way from dross, and manna from heaven for those of us who want to reminisce about the ‘good old days’ of detective fiction when plots were plots, men were men, and the ways of women were a mystery never to be unravelled (“How do you suppose she came by a razor? Women don’t shave. They smoke and drink and swear, but they haven’t taken to shaving yet. I don’t believe it. Do you?”).
Hopefully see you later…
R. Austin Freeman on The Invisible Event: