#853: “He is an old friend, you know, and he is very much interested…” – John Thorndyke’s Cases, a.k.a. Dr. Thorndyke’s Cases [ss] (1909) by R. Austin Freeman

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.

~

~

Next week: the spoiler-filled discussion of After the Funeral (1953) by Agatha Christie that you all voted for. Remember that? Happier times.

53 thoughts on “#853: “He is an old friend, you know, and he is very much interested…” – John Thorndyke’s Cases, a.k.a. Dr. Thorndyke’s Cases [ss] (1909) by R. Austin Freeman

    • Thanks, Christophe — the break was much-needed, but it became clear quite quickly how much I missed writing the blog and engaging with people about these books. Lovely to be back.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Great to see you posting again, Jim! And what a tribute to the Ace of Detectives!

    Yes, Thorndyke is the first truly Great Detective after Holmes – he’s a genius, of course, as you say, but also supremely well-balanced. (There’s eugenics for you!) This is early Freeman, so Doyle is still the great model, but Freeman progressed the genre (while poking gentle fun at Holmes’s incredible deductions, like the Blue Carbuncle hat!). Doyle is the great populariser, and the better storyteller, but Freeman introduced naturalism and made detective fiction more rigorous; he introduced fair play clueing (scarce in Doyle). And was there anything in detective fiction like those chains of reasoning before him? He sacrificed Doyle’s vitality, flamboyance, and grotesquery, but opened up new avenues.

    Does your book have the microscopic slides? They’re a lovely touch – and show Freeman’s desire to educate as well as entertain his readers. One always *learns* something from Thorndyke.

    Jervis is still there in the last Thorndyke cases, incidentally. The doctor narrators are cut from the same cloth; it’s hard to tell Anstey and Jardine and Jervis apart!

    Blanched Soldier, Mazarin Stone, Lion’s Mane, and His Last Bow – I think.

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    • 100% on those stories, Nick — though I’m hardly surprised 🙂

      My edition, the House of Stratus paperback shown up top, does not have the slides, no. We get the nailed shoes and the Moabite cipher, but clearly the reprographic budget didn’t stretch to that, which is a real shame as that sounds like a wonderful inclusion. That sense of learning is key, and this seems like a dropped ball.

      I agree completey, too, with your assertion about Doyle’s “vitality, flamboyance, and grotesquery”. I’m more of a fan of Thorndyke, I think, if only because he feels so fresh for his era in light of how the detection is so keenly observed and communicated; Doyle’s many skills, though, should not be considered easily dismissed: a great many people wrote in his shadow (and for a long time) for a reason, after all.

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      • Yes – I agree with you and Nick. It is interesting to compare detectives and their methods / styles. Holmes seems to concentrate on eccentricity of personality and atmosphere. Freeman looks at it as a logic exercise making me feel that I was there observing all the detail firsthand. That makes for an interesting contrast to an ageing spinster in Miss Marple, who outwits professional detectives by listening and reflecting on human nature whilst knitting.

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        • Agreed, and arguably it’s the range of approaches that allows such a broad range of stories in what should be a narrow little genre.

          And, of course, this begs the question of who the GAD Avengers would be — the detective who best exemplify their style of ratiocination. Thorndyke is the scientist and Marple the psychologist…who else makes the cut? 😄

          Liked by 1 person

        • Well, those are delightful. My version contained all the line drawings — the bay, the shoes, the cipher, the dagger — but none of the rest.

          I’ll be sure to keep an eye out for any missed diagrams in my future reading, because it’s such a fabulous conceit — what a shame they weren’t considered part of the author’s manuscript and thus necessary inclusions. Thanks, NIck!

          Liked by 1 person

    • Try The D’Arblay Mystery for novels, or the Singing Bone collection with its four inverted and one “straight” short story — both vital and brilliant works.

      Thanks for the kind words; happy new year to you, too!

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  2. Best wishes for health and success in 2022 Jim.
    It was your blog that introduced me to Freeman. Thanks for that as I enjoyed D’arblay, As a Thief and Pottermack so will look for this collection as well.

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    • It was through writing this blog in the first place that Freeman was brought to my serious attention — I’d dismissed him as little more than Holmes-lite after reading ‘The Aluminium Dagger’ and seeing it reproduced in just about every anthology going — and so I’m delighted to pass the recommendation and enthusiasm on. Thankfully there’s a lot of Freeman to go around, so we’ll have much to discuss on the topic in the years ahead.

      Happy new year to you and yours; here’s hoping for much health, happiness, and success for all.

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  3. What a treat to start the new year! Not only your return, but a particularly astute tribute to mark the occasion. Yes, for all his good looks, multifaceted learning, and casual brilliance, Thorndyke’s sharp-eyed observations are matched by the world in which Freeman sets him. Even apart from the early emphasis on forensics, these stories seem, as you—and Nick—point out, a vital link from romance to realism.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You make an excellent point, because the introduction of realism was important, too, wasn’t it? It allowed the genre to build on these solid foundations and go on to the gilded heights of wild speculation of Carr, Christie, and their ilk, and for the farceurs like Berkeley and Bruce to then have great fun pulling it all around. Without the belief in its base, the spire could never have been built so high — I’d failed to consider that!

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      • And I hadn’t considered the latitude such a firm foundation gives the more imaginative upper realms–as you point out, it’s a fascinating, continuing tension. (As far as Bruce goes, really loving Case for Three Detectives on your recommendation!)

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        • Good to know that Bruce is working so well for you — at their best (Three Detectives, No Conclusion, Case for Sergeant Beef) that series is an utter delight. I’ve still not read the last two titles, which were frighteningly hard to find when I first got into Bruce. Might have a look for them now, see if anyone has reprinted them of late.

          Thanks for the reminder!

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    • The Red Thumb Mark isn’t Freeman’s best; Mike Grost warned me off it.

      Try:
      The Eye of Osiris (Egyptology!)
      The D’Arblay Mystery
      As a Thief in the Night

      My first was The Stoneware Monkey, which satirises modern art; I enjoyed it, but on rereading, found it long-winded. It’s one of Freeman’s last books.

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      • Yeah, Red Thumb Mark is fascinating in its own way, but for the modern reader not a good Thorndyke. And Osiris is entertaining, but more of a jaunt than great detection — anyone hoping to feel the flame of Thorndyke fandom burning in their breast would be well-advised to leave these until reading at least the other two of Nick’s suggestions above.

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        • I like Osiris a lot! It has dismembered corpses, Egyptology, and wills – solved by new-fangled X-rays and a knowledge of pond life. And the solution’s almost the punchline to a black comedy.

          (In a way, there’s a dash of Stevenson’s Wrong Box in it.)

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          • I don’t dislike Osiris, but Steve wouldn’t get out of it what I think he’s looking for in Freeman. The punchline — and I agree that it is a punchline — is superb, and there’s plenty that’s fascinating along the way…but I would recommend at least one higher flight from his RAF first if someone’s first experience had left them a little underwhelmed.

            Liked by 1 person

        • The Freeman fandom that had greeted this post is lovely — great to be back anyway, but even nicer to be surrounded by so much enthusiasm for such a wonderful author and creation.

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    • You should. I see Nick recommended Osiris below, but I’d opt for his other two suggestions of D’Arblay or Thief in the Night — and since I read them early on Nick’s suggestion, I know whereof Nick speaks! They’re very much the books which, added to the ingenuity of Pottermack, made me see the depth and brilliance of Freeman’s work.

      Osiris is good and fine and all, but if you’re having doubts it’ll do little so assuage them.

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  4. Glad to see you back! Hope this year will be kinder to you.
    I’ve got an ebook with a bunch of Thorndyke stories in it – don’t know which ones. I stopped reading fairly early, but you make me want to get back to them.
    I thought I could name those Holmes stories, but looking at Nick’s post I realised I got one wrong. The most famous (LM) and the most confusing in its narration choice (MS) were the ones I remembered.

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    • I know what you mean about the confusing narration choice of TMS. There’s at least a purpose to the misdirection in ‘His Last Bow’, but Mazarin is bizarre since (from memory) there’s no real benefit to stepping outside of Watson there. Mind you, ‘Lion’s Mane’ is bizarre because it takes the genius Holmes so long to join two such obviously adjacent points…so maybe we’re all better assuming Watson did narrate all the cases and putting these four aside from the collective consciousness 🙂

      Thanks for the kind words, too. The break was needed, but it’s lovely to be back among such good company.

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    • Thanks, TC. I read your recent review of The Wintringham Mystery with interest. Will 2022 start us off in agreement, or will you be wrong again? 😄 Time will tell…

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  5. Welcome back! This was a lovely way to start 2022 (Happy New Year btw). I have enjoyed my first few encounters with Freeman and will have to keep it in mind if I decide to go the short story route for my next RAF read.

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    • Thanks, Aidan, and happy new year to you.

      Since you enjoyed Pottermack so much, you’re already halfway to becoming a Freeman acolyte 🙂 The Singing Bone collection is better in my opinion, but if you know you like what Freeman does then there’s much here to enjoy. Here’s hoping 2022 sees you and Dr. Thorndyke encountering each other before too long.

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      • Thanks! I suspect my next Freeman is likely to be a novel-length work (I have warmed to the short story but novels are very much my preference) but this has some stories which do sound interesting if I do go that short story route.

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  6. So happy to see you’re back at it, JJ, and so enjoyed this review of Thorndyke. As fanatic a follower of Holmes as I am, I know very little about Thorndyke; my exposure mainly from the two episodes of The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes which dramatized The Moabite Cypher and A Message From the Deep Sea. As such, Thorndyke has emerged very much as a character in the Holmes mold, the application of early forensic science simply being a way to differentiate him from Holmes and this does Freeman and his work a great disservice. To read that these stories stand on their own is great to hear, though it does not surprise me that Doyle has remained the most popular writer of that era by virtue of those attributes Nick so aptly described in his above comment. I think just as many people read the Holmes stories for their atmosphere and the evocation of Victorian London as they do to see Holmes in action. It’s not controversial to say that the mysteries of the Sherlock Holmes stories are seldom their strongest feature.

    I would recommend looking into the recently re-issued series of Thorndyke stories from MX Publishing and edited and presented by my editor and friend David Marcum. He has made it his mission to bring Thorndyke back into the public consciousness and these reprints are a wonderful step in the right direction. I wish I had the shelf space for them all…

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    • Thorndyke, among others, has helped fan the flames of my interest in post-Holmes detective fiction, given what a mushrooming in interest occurred in the wake of Doyle’s writing. Apart from Martin Hewitt and Orczy’s Old Man I’m actually pretty ignorant of most late-Victorian/early C.20th examples, but that’s something I’ll vow to correct in 2022.

      The MX undertaking sounded wonderful, and were I a fan of multiple-edition volumes I’d’ve purchased those over the Stratus editions pictured above. Alas, twofer and threefer volumes just don’t appeal to me…dunno why, but I’ll typically opt of them only in a dearth of alternatives (such as the excellent Roger Scarlett books put out by Coachwhip).

      Anyway, whatever format anyone reading this prefers, definitely buy some Thorndyke tales 🙂

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  7. Hullo JJ

    We had a brief exchange about Dr Thorndyke last year, as I always checked out your blog, which I have missed. So I am glad that the clouds are lifting a bit and you are back in action. Cheers

    Jon Blake

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    • Hello, Jon — I seem to remember that you helped me with the provenance of the fabulously-named “Dick Swiveller”, for which again many thanks 🙂

      Delighted you’re a regular visitor, and thanks for the kind words. Hopefully we’ll see more of you in the coming months.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Welcome back. I always look forward to your recommendations and reviews. Freeman I have read in short form and loved although I haven’t read much in longer form, but I have a copy of D’Arblay so I’ll move that to the top of my TBR pile.

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    • Thanks, Ronald.

      D’Arblay is a delight, and one of the ones (after only nine Freemans, so I can’t claim full cognisance) I’d heartily recommend. I’ll look forward to hearing what you think when you get to it.

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      • There is an essay in the front of “Dr. Thorndyke’s Crime File” by Freeman himself, titled “Meet Dr. Thorndyke” in which Freeman discusses the creation of his character, his physical appearance, his lack of eccentricities, and how his methods differ from Holmes. In particular he assures us that Dr, Thorndyke is not a detective, but a medico-legal expert and his methods are both more technical and more specialized. He also expounds on the function of Dr. Jervis. Quote: “He is the expert misunderstander. His job is to observe and record all the facts, and to fail completely to perceive their significance.”

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        • I wonder how much that was Freeman trying to appeal to the Holmes crowd — because Jervis may observe, but he doesn’t fail to understand to the extent that Watson does.

          Thanks for bringing the essay to my attention; I’ll check it out in due course.

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  9. Welcome back, JJ. Sorry to hear that things have been challenging, but it’s good to know that you were supported by friends, and lifted up by interesting mystery novels. Hereby wishing you a good year ahead. 😊

    Looking forward to your Berkeley review!

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    • Thanks, dude — I now have to remember what I wanted to say about the books I was able to read while on hiatus 😄

      Nice to be back, though; it’s no fun reading these books and having no-one to discuss them with…!

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  10. He’s baaaaaack!

    I just want to point out what you and all your friends have gotten – and continue to get – wrong until I want to pull my luxuriant hair out: it’s not “ee”, it’s “ie”, followed by a “d”: “Friedman” NOT “Freeman”! Sheesh!

    I was going to make a joke about how I couldn’t comment on the collection of Thorndyke stories I purchased because I seem to collect books without reading them. But when I went to my shelves, I discovered that I had forgotten to buy the damn book.

    Backing out of the conversation now. Continue, gentlemen . . .

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  11. Pingback: LONDON SHORTS WEATHER: Book Club Reads Capital Crimes | Ah Sweet Mystery!

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