After a tough few months in which I have been very grateful for the support of good friends and the presence of good books, let’s discuss the latter, eh? Kicking off 2022 is John Thorndyke’s Cases (1909), the first collection of short stories to feature Richard Austin Freeman’s medical jurist.
The most famous of the eight stories herein is doubtless the oft-anthologised ‘The Aluminium Dagger’ (1909), ostensibly an impossible crime story in which a man is found stabbed in the back in a locked room whose open windows are “some forty feet from the ground [with] no rain-pipe near any of them”; additionally “there isn’t a foothold for a fly on any part of that wall. The grates are modern, and there isn’t room for a good-sized cat to crawl up any of the chimneys”, and so “the question is, How did the murderer get in, and how did he get out again?”.
I’ve often wondered at the popularity of this story — it’s perfectly fine, but having first read it several years ago I promptly forgot about it before believing Mr. Pottermack’s Oversight (1930) to be my first encounter with this particular Great Detective. Rereading it now, with more Thorndyke and more early detective fiction under my belt, I wonder if its similarity to the Sherlock Holmes canon plays no small part in its appeal: the rendering of a violent foreign word — “Traditore…the Italian for ‘traitor’.” — bringing to mind “Rache” from Holmes’ first case A Study in Scarlet (1887), Thorndyke knowing to look for an octagonal bolt without disclosing his reasons in the very best Holmesian fashion…indeed, Thorndyke is very much the All-Knowing Presence here in a way that is probably comforting to those raised on a Sherlockian diet, but removes most of the charm and personality of the detective we’re here to read about.
Detective fiction of course owes a huge debt to Holmes, and in the same way that every superhero movie for the last 20 years has struggled to parse “With great power comes great responsibility” even half as neatly or brilliantly, there are times when Thorndyke’s need to fit into the Holmes model can be a little…clunky.
“It is not our function to confirm an hypothesis suggested by outside circumstances, but rather, on the contrary, to make certain that no other explanation is possible. And that is my invariable practice. No matter how glaringly obvious the appearances may be, I refuse to take anything for granted.”
However, I’ll die on the hill of Thorndyke being the first meaningful iteration of the Great Detective archetype that deserves to be seen beyond the reach of Holmes’ shadow.
Consider how in ‘The Moabite Cipher’ (1909) Thorndyke entrusts the decryption of the eponymous message to “the great palæographer” Professor Poppelbaum, since that sort of thing would fall more readily into another’s specialism — how Thorndyke, brought into the affair without being formally consulted, and so denoting himself “a passive, though interested, spectator”, is happy to let others ply their trade without interference. Thorndyke has always seemed to me more than happy to admit the experience of the people around him — not merely treating his chronicler Christopher Jervis as an intelligent man capable of reasoning and deduction, but also taking pleasure in the conduct of Sergeant Payne’s examination of the footprints which inform ‘The Man with the Nailed Shoes’ (1909), or treating Fred Calverly, puffed up with disdain for the “arrogant materialism” of science, respectfully when that gentleman comes to him full of stories of mysticism in ‘The Mandarin’s Pearl’ (1909):
“Supposing you tell us about your experiences,” said Thorndyke persuasively. “Give us a chance to believe, if we can’t explain away.”
Additionally, there is far more humour in the Thorndyke stories than in probably all the contemporaneous tales of detection I’ve yet encountered. You get a flash of this in ‘The Aluminium Dagger’, when Thorndyke suggests that they interview the porter of the set of rooms where the body is found and Jervis drily informs us that “[t]he custodian was not difficult to find, being, in fact, engaged at that moment in a survey of the premises through the slit of the letter-box”. For that matter, it’s Jervis himself who brings most of the wit to these tales: the aforementioned Fred Calverly seeming to him on first appearance to be “the stuff out of which prophets and devotees, martyrs, reformers, and third-rate poets are made”; his vexation at a “preposterous farmer” who dislocates his elbow and so needs attending late one evening; or this simply divine paragraph that opens ‘The Moabite Cipher’:
A large and motley crowd lined the pavements of Oxford Street as Thorndyke and I made our way leisurely eastward. Floral decorations and drooping bunting announced one of those functions inaugurated from time to time by a benevolent Government for the entertainment of fashionable loungers and the relief of distressed pickpockets. For a Russian Grand Duke, who had torn himself away, amidst valedictory explosions, from a loving if too demonstrative people, was to pass anon on his way to the Guildhall; and a British Prince, heroically indiscreet, was expected to occupy a seat in the ducal carriage.
I have said before, and I stand by it, that certain of the Thorndyke tales narrated by Jervis render the chronicler somewhat indistinct, to the extent that I have forgotten whether it was even Jervis who ‘told’ them to us. This collection, however, finds him on excellent form: not only making correct (if simple) inferences from the information provided, but also having the perspicacity to pick up on subtle physical and psychological clues throughout. It’s arguably Jervis who makes the key observation in ‘The Anthropologist at Large’ (1909) that sees that case brought to a satisfactory conclusion (and, when praised by Thorndyke for this, Jervis is quick to dismiss the idea of his own importance with brusque self-effacement as “preposterous”). Freeman doubtless dismissed Jervis from his employ, as did Agatha Christie with Captain Arthur Hastings, because he needed a wider range of protagonists to inform many of his later narratives, and I wonder now if John Watson is more familiar only because we can be certain that practically all of Holmes’ cases were related by him (indeed, how many people can name the Holmes stories Watson doesn’t narrate? No cheating…).
Your narrator is only as good as the detective they trail around after, however, and Thorndyke is simply one of the best ever put on paper. From little touches that are no less believable for their lack of repetition — of course John Evelyn Thorndyke carries a cane which is marked off in feet and inches, it’s a beautiful idea and I don’t care if it’s never mentioned again in the canon — to the grace of his conduct at all times and to all people…
“I must apologise for Dr. Davidson, sir,” said Hart, looking up with a vexed face from the desk at which he was writing out his notes.
“You needn’t,” said Thorndyke; “you didn’t supply him with manners.”
…and the daunting, palpable, human intelligence he brings to his reasoning. Sure, if all criminals are as careless as those in ‘The Man with the Nailed Shoes’ then we’d have no need for the Thorndykes of fiction, but the appreciable intelligence of spotting the “too much arsenic” trick in ‘The Moabite Cipher’, the clarity (and undoubted correctness) of the scientific methods undertaken, the crucial understanding of sand soap and Turkey sponges in ‘A Message from the Deep Sea’, a.k.a. ‘Message from the Grave’ (1909), invoking the cephalic index in ‘The Anthropologist at Large’ with a playful disregard for his most illustrious forebear…
“I understand,” said [Mr. Löwe], “that by examining a hat it is possible to deduce from it, not only the bodily characteristics of the wearer, but also his mental and moral qualities, his state of health, his pecuniary position, his past history, and even his domestic relations and the peculiarities of his place of abode. Am I right in this supposition?”
The ghost of a smile flitted across Thorndyke’s face as he laid the hat upon the remains of the newspaper. “We must not expect too much,” he observed. “Hats, as you know, have a way of changing owners. Your own hat, for instance” (a very spruce, hard felt), “is a new one, I think.”
“Got it last week,” said Mr. Löwe.
“Exactly. It is an expensive hat, by Lincoln and Bennett, and I see you have judiciously written your name in indelible marking-ink on the lining. Now, a new hat suggests a discarded predecessor. What do you do with your old hats?”
“My man has them, but they don’t fit him. I suppose he sells them or gives them away.”
“Very well. Now, a good hat like yours has a long life, and remains serviceable long after it has become shabby; and the probability is that many of your hats pass from owner to owner; from you to the shabby-genteel, and from them to the shabby ungenteel. And it is a fair assumption that there are, at this moment, an appreciable number of tramps and casuals wearing hats by Lincoln and Bennett, marked in indelible ink with the name S. Löwe; and anyone who should examine those hats, as you suggest, might draw some very misleading deductions as to the personal habits of S. Löwe.”
…is all the more enjoyable for how within the reader’s grasp such principles feel. Thorndyke is a genius, no doubt, but we can at least begin to understand why.
The most consistently excellent Thorndyke collection I’ve yet encountered is doubtless The Singing Bone (1912), but to see Freeman and Thorndyke at among their brilliant best in the short form you could doubtless do little better than the two as-yet unmentioned stories in this collection: the impossible murder of ‘The Blue Sequin’, a.k.a. ‘The Blue Spangle’ (1908) and kidnapping story ‘The Stranger’s Latchkey’ (1909). The first gives us both a superbly well-hidden clue (not Freeman’s forte, it must be said) and a delightful glimpse at Thorndyke’s humanity when confronting the belongings of the deceased in the morgue, and ties up the baffling murder with a magnificently-realised chain of reasoning that must stand among the best in early detective fiction. The second might be a little confused as to motive, but shows the folly of attempting to be too clever when dealing with a simple aim, and constructs its reasoning so effortlessly as to genuinely startle.
I enjoy, too, that for Freeman the solution of the crime is as far as Thorndyke need go. He rarely has a desire to be in at the capture of the criminals — that’s hardly his province, remember — with the result that they sometimes escape justice by elopement or suicide. This feels like a further step towards realism, towards a world where the untidy ends aren’t always complacently tucked away. It is perhaps these lingering ends, both at the commission of the crime and at the resolution of the problem Thorndyke encounters, that make these cases so very interesting; for, as the great man says:
“He has shown us how a clever and ingenious criminal may take endless pains to mislead and delude the police, and yet, by inattention to trivial details, may scatter clues broadcast. We can only say to the criminal class generally, in both respects, ‘Go thou and do likewise’.”
If this is the sort of delight that results from such carelessness, that’s a sentiment I can wholly get behind.
R. Austin Freeman on The Invisible Event:
Next week: the spoiler-filled discussion of After the Funeral (1953) by Agatha Christie that you all voted for. Remember that? Happier times.