#806: The Red Thumb Mark (1907) by R. Austin Freeman

Red Thumb Mark

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As a firm proponent of reading an author’s work chronologically, I’m a terrible hypocrite. I initially encountered Dr. John Evelyn Thorndyke in his eighteenth published volume, and then read his third, fifth, fourteenth, seventeenth, fourth, and sixteenth before now getting to his debut, The Red Thumb Mark (1907). Those of you following along at home will know how much enjoyment I’ve taken from Freeman’s writing, and the simple truth is that, had I started here, I may still be working up the enthusiasm to read further. Not that this is a bad book, and in many ways it’s a fascinating one, but it’s difficult from here to see the heights RAF would scale later in his career.

The principal plot — concerning a bloody thumb-print found in a safe following a robbery, the bearer of said thumb insisting on his innocence — has a short story’s worth of content, and can be followed clearly enough simply by reading the closing chapters which detail the trial of the accused man. The cast is tiny, the actual guilty party (spoilers?) sticks out like a sore, er, thumb, and the entire thing hinges on an idea that was perhaps in general ignorance at the time but is hardly going to blow the socks off anyone 114 years later. It also confirms a fear I’d had of Freeman before reading the sublime Mr. Pottermack’s Oversight (1930) in that the prose is weirdly dessicated and bodes poorly for any literary progeny of this first effort (a fear I have found largely baseless in his later works, if you were wondering).

It would, then, be easy to deride Freeman on writing and plotting alone, were we to forget the preceding fare being used as nourishment and the bread being cast upon the waters of a forthcoming GAD revolution. Much like his venerated forebear Sherlock Holmes, Thorndyke sees himself as something of an epicure of crime: “It is [the ingenious] criminal that creates the necessity for my services. He is my patron, so to speak; my ultimate employer. For the common crook can be dealt with quite efficiently by the common policeman!”. And the need for an independent detective is keenly felt:

“When the police have made an arrest they work for a conviction. If the man is innocent, that is his business, not theirs; it is for him to prove it. The system is a pernicious one — especially since the efficiency of a police officer is, in consequence, apt to be estimated by the number of convictions he has secured, and an inducement is thus held out to him to obtain a conviction, if possible.”

Add to this the (real life) work by Francis Galton in which he “states that a finger-print affords evidence requiring no corroboration — a most dangerous and misleading statement which has been fastened upon eagerly by the police, who have naturally been delighted at obtaining a sort of magic touchstone by which they are saved the labour of investigation”, and Thorndyke’s zeal is neatly accounted for. “Nobody but an utter fool arrives at a conclusion without data” he scoffs at one point, and it is Christopher Jervis’ “capacity to perceive the essential underneath the obvious” that sees him drawn into collaboration with Thorndyke in the Watson role — kept in the dark until the closing stages, naturally — in clearing Reuben Hornby from suspicion. Thorndyke respects science, noting that “fingerprint experts may fairly be trusted in their own speciality”, but rejects the pseudoscientific conclusions the layman has a tendency to jump to — a theme to which he would return in the inverted short mystery ‘A Case of Premeditation’ (1910) when bloodhounds are used to track down a guilty man. He is Holmes, but Holmes with his reasoning (eventually) made comprehensible and a predeliction for nothing more potent than a cheerot.

While we get flashes of dry humour befitting so august a personage…

“On the shelves there you will find Casper, Taylor, Guy and Ferrier, and the other authorities on medical jurisprudence, and I will put out one or two other books that you may find useful. I want you to extract and make classified notes of everything that may bear on such a case as the present one may turn out to be…”

“Casper and Taylor are pretty old, aren’t they?” I objected.

“So is suicide,” he retorted drily.

…there is also about Thorndyke the assumed arrogance of the Great Detective that is oddly out of character given his magnanimity: “you might as well cross-examine a Whitstable native as put questions to him… [he] plays a single-handed game and no one knows what cards he holds until he lays them on the table” — he may alert the guilty party were he to say anything, but given the various attempts on his life both here and in other books (Thorndyke Receives a Death-Trap in the Mail would appear to be the Wolfe Tends to His Orchids of this series) could he not leave, like, some notes in a safe deposit box or something? Hell, his assistant and factotum Nathaniel Polton is left nervously “wandering in and out of the rooms…like a cat in a new house”, so imagine how the man about to find his neck in a noose must feel. Still, Thorndyke is not without moments of unbending to give an explanation for this methods, the scientific precursor to Father Brown’s psychological processes some 18 years later in ‘The Secret of Father Brown’ (1925):

“I planned a series of murders, selecting royal personages and great ministers as the victims, and on each murder I brought to bear all the special knowledge, skill and ingenuity at my command. I inquired minutely into the habits of my hypothetical victims; ascertained who were their associates, friends, enemies and servants; considered their diet, their residences, their modes of conveyance, the source of their clothing and, in fact, everything which it was necessary to know in order to achieve their deaths with certainty and with absolute safety to the murderer.”

‘Someone plans a murder and someone else carries it out’ would go on to become a trope of crime fiction over the ensuing century, and it’s amusing to see how casually Freeman casts this kind of innovation aside — though, given that he becomes decidedly Hercule Poirot-esque (“Then keep [your opinions] to yourself, mon ami, so that I need not feel as if I ought to unbosom myself of my own views”) 13 years before anyone would hear of Hercule Poirot, perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised at his foresight. Yes, a lot of what is here has also dated badly, but it’s never less than fascinating for that very reason — c’mon, in nineteen-oh-seven they had already calculated that an estimated “sixteen thousand million” people had ever lived. That’s incredible — think of the reasoning involved, and consider how little that number has been revised in the century since. You probably don’t care, but, damn!

One benefit of coming to this book later than intended is the trivia it contains for the series as a whole: Thorndyke having met Polton as “an in-patient at the hospital…miserably ill and broken, a victim of poverty and undeserved misfortune” is something that we’d gripe about if retro-fitted to the series by some ‘continuation’ author in the 1970s; and Jervis having served as a medical officer at Holloway prison — as did Freeman — is as unsurprising as it is oddly pleasing. Also worth noting is Freeman’s echoing of Arthur Conan Doyle’s inconsistency by housing Thorndyke at 6A King’s Bench Walk herein and 5A in all ensuing books — accidental oversight, or loving homage? You decide… (though, yeah, it’s doubtless the former).

Overall, while the plot is thin and the outcome never surprising (I quite like the Inevitable Romance — the final chapter was sort of charming in its weirdly Victorian way), it’s what Freeman promised and delivered on in the books to come that makes The Red Thumb Mark worthy of attention. To give us a genuinely great, genuinely scientific detective — “They would hardly make a Trichinopoly cheroot from leaf grown in the West Indies, so we have here a striking anomaly of an East Indian cigar sent to us by a West Indian grower” — is no mean feat. To see how fully this was exploited as both a building block for Freeman’s own output and a jumping off point for so many of the authors who would follow (contrast the pains RAF took to be accurate in his trial here with the rather more speculative efforts of Agatha Christie and Freeman Wills Crofts in their debuts) makes it only more delightful. A qualified success, then, but still a success.


12 thoughts on “#806: The Red Thumb Mark (1907) by R. Austin Freeman

  1. By an odd coincidence, I had just read the paragraph above (the one referring to Casper, Taylor, Guy and Ferrier) when I opened this blog entry.
    This certainly isn’t Freeman’s best work, but I still continue to re-read it with pleasure (having first done so about 50 years ago). Incidentally, we find out more of Polton’s backstory in a later title (can you guess which one?)


    • I’m guessing we learn more about Polton in…The Mystery of Angelina Frood, yes? 😛

      Yeah this is far from RAF’s best, and I can say that with only 8 books under my belt, but seeing how he improved even in those eight books makes it more than bearable. Had this been the paek of his output we’d be rightly frustrated, but it’s clear he learned lessons about content and pacing here and applied them superbly in what was to follow. That alone makes it notable and woth revisiting — seeing where someone has progressed from is always a weirdly pleasing experience, ain’t it?


  2. Every time I read one of your Freeman posts I feel like I ought to make a point to revisit Freeman sooner rather than later.
    This one is probably not the one I will reach for next, if only because some of the other titles you have written about seem more interesting as cases but it is good to know that his debut was far from a dud.


    • Yeah, I would certainly advise being more au fair with Freeman’s strenghts before dipping into this — the “look how far you’ve come” element of the later books will make this an altogether more enjoyable experience.

      Whatever you pick, I hope you enjoy it; RAF has delighted me with how completely I’ve been swept up in his approach, and I hope others get to experience something of that as well. Not everyone’s gonna love him — who except is universally adored Brad Friedman? — but for those of us who like this sort of thing, ol’ Richard is damn fabulous.


  3. I have a copy of this, but I imagine it won’t be on the list of the next four RAF books that I read… Thanks for making sure I didn’t stumble with my next read.

    Looking forward to the review of The Clock Strikes 13. I’ve had this on top of one of my many TBR stacks for a while now but I’ve been saving it for a rainy day.


    • The debuts of detectives, especially long-runing detectives, are always interesting if rarely their best work. Definitely wait to see RAF and JET in strogner cases first.

      Thorndyke I find fascinating in this regard, though, because of the sheer range of mystery culture that he covered and survived: frim this late-Victorian Holmes facsimile all the way up to 1940 when the lustre on GAD begins to crack. He was there for all of it, so there’s bound to be phenomenal range in the approaches taken.


      • I’m curious how the later RAF books will turn out. I see there’s about a decade that you haven’t touched. I have The Unconscious Witness, The Stoneware Monkey, and Mr Polton Explains from that era but haven’t read them yet.


  4. JJ
    An odd thing has been happening. Kindle keeps showing me ads for “unexpurgated” versions of RAF! Have I been reading expurgated Thorndyke? Do you know anything about this?


    • I can believe that there will be certain attitudes, as we say “of the time” that would have crept in and so are likely to have been removed by modern publishers (I seem to remember whoever is editing the Complete Thorndyke for MX Publishing making a comment to this effect on Facebook).

      As to specific examples…nah, sorry, got no idea. I can’t believe it’ll have affected the plots in any way, however.


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