#894: A Silent Witness (1914) by R. Austin Freeman

A Silent Witness

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Sheltering from the rain while out for a walk in north London one September evening, trainee doctor Humphrey Jardine happens upon the body of a dead man, only for the corpse to have vanished by the time he is able to bring the police to the location. Before long, a discovery at the scene of this vanishing, a chance encounter with the comely Miss Sylvia Vyne, a suspicious clergyman, and the death of an elderly patient just as Jardine is about to act as locum tenens for another doctor’s practice will combine with this mobile corpse to make quite the most “astounding sequence” in young Jardine’s life, changing it forever.

Having established his writing career before the dawn of the Golden Age of detective fiction, it seems to me that Richard Austin Freeman’s early works are to be read less as puzzles and more as John Rhode-ian experiments in examining what is admissible under the science of the time. Here, he is concerned with the growing fad of cremation after death: “The grave gives up its secrets now and again, but the crematorium furnace never” is the aphorism offered up early on, and — as did the infallibility of fingerprints in The Red Thumb Mark (1907) — this comes under the scrutiny of Freeman’s wonderful creation Dr. John Evelyn Thorndyke. Cremation seems a foolproof way to disguise murder, if a suitably slapdash doctor was convinced to sign a certificate allowing it, since surely nothing can be gleaned from a pile of ashes and a few remaining bone fragments. Can it?

Much as with Thorndyke’s debut, the question can be answered simply by reading the final chapter, as a fair amount of what precedes Thorndyke’s typically exhaustive elucidation — “[He] will never tell you anything until he can tell you everything” is a lovely distillation of the Great Detective’s habit of keeping his cards well within the bounds of his chest — is mere adventuring and scrapes to provide a bit of intrigue. You’ll spot the guilty party at forty paces, the nascent genre having yet to adopt the democratisation of suspicion that marked out the sea change of the Golden Age, but when you consider the gap this is bridging, between late Victorian suspense literature and genuine detection fast approaching, that’s hardly a surprise. In that regard I consider myself fortunate, and grateful to Nick Fuller, for having been directed to some of Freeman’s later, more sophisticated puzzles already, since the prospect of reading thirty more of these would not prove as invigorating as I know Freeman to have become shortly hereafter.

In true era-appropriate style, Jardine is something of an idiot: it takes three clear attempts on his life, enough to terrify most normal people into hiding forever, before he begins to perceive the threat against himself, and even then he decides to ignore Thorndyke’s stern advice and go for tea with Miss Vyne, the Lovely Young Thing brought into his orbit by his adventures. Initially something of a dull fish (“[A]ll women-kind are more or less prone to hysteria; but whereas the normal woman tends to laugh and cry, the weaker vessels develop inexplicable diseases, with a tendency to social reform and emancipation.”) there is at least the occasional air of realisation about him:

A young and newly-qualified doctor, emerging for the first time into private practice, is apt to be somewhat surprised and disconcerted by the new conditions. Accustomed to the exclusively professional and scientific atmosphere of the hospital, the sudden appearance of the personal element as the predominant factor rather takes him aback. … The hospital patient, drilled into a certain respectful submissiveness by the discipline of the wards, has given place to an employer, usually critical, sometimes truculent and occasionally addicted to a disagreeable frankness of speech.

You can feel little human wrinkles in things like his frank bafflement at why so many men are given Swiss army knives as gifts, or why a servant would confuse his name “with that of a well-known edible fish”. Freeman was never a Dickens of minor characters, but the humanity towards his subjects that marks what I’ve read can be found in little moments in his early writings: the lawyer Mr. Marchmont contemplating a wink before thinking better of it, Christopher Jervis introducing himself with a twinkle as “[s]econd violin in the Thorndyke orchestra”, Mopsy and her magnificent disdain at Jardine’s use of disguise, the changing aspect of the mysterious Mrs. Samway, who might go through the greatest character-arc-for-pages-featured of any fictional being in the first half of the 20th century. The personal touches matter, so that when Jardine finds himself confronting murder and “choking with grief and horror and a fury of hate for the foul wretch who had done this appalling thing” it hits harder than you might otherwise expect.

While Freeman’s plotting may not have quite achieved its apotheosis yet, his writing is extremely pleasant and tremendously easy to spend time with. Counting against the book in the former category we have a string of perhaps over-wrought coincidences that just about hold together under scrutiny, in the manner of most of the literature that could call itself an antecedent of Freeman’s milieu. The latter category, however, is enriched by light historical touches — that a hansom cab passenger would have a certain status expected of them, say — rubbing shoulders with some truly excellent prose, such as when we first confront the egress of the corpse which sets these events in motion:

But whither had it been carried? Presumably to some sequestered spot in the wood. And what better hiding-place could be found? There, buried in the soft leaf-mould, it might lie undisturbed for centuries, covered only the deeper as each succeeding autumn shed its russet burden on the unknown grave.

Equally, the laboratory redolent with “that all-pervading, unforgettable odour…compounded of alcohol and mortality, and suggesting a necropolis for deceased dipsomaniacs” sets the scene as acutely as the clear-sighted description of poisonous gas settling in a room during the first attempt on Jardine’s wellbeing. Every time I found my credulity stretched by one of the developments that push events forward, such as a man with a genius for disguise nevertheless having a physical peculiarity that makes him extremely easy to identify, a pacily-described scene or the colourful rendering of a setting would pull me back in.

And then, over and above all other considerations, there is the simple joy of Thorndyke himself. Calm in a crisis (he jumps here to the head of the ungrammatically-titled list of Great Detectives to Be Locked In a Burning Building With), wonderfully rigorous in his deductions (“My hypothesis was perfectly sound…but it did not follow therefore that it was true.”) and magnificent both in sympathy and moral inflexibility where it counts (“[T]his is a case for a few fathoms of good, stout, hempen rope, and the common hangman. The private vengeance of a decent man would be an undeserved honour for a wretch like this.”), I’m beginning to feel that any moment in a Thorndyke novel not spent with Thorndyke (or at least his ménage, the omni-reliable Nathaniel Polton being an endless delight) is a moment wasted. So while this is not the book through which to make your acquaintance of either author or character, once you are convinced of the merits of both there is more than sufficient herein to justify the time spent meeting them again.

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10 thoughts on “#894: A Silent Witness (1914) by R. Austin Freeman

  1. This is one I’ve not yet read, and your clear-eyed enthusiasm has led me to glance at the first chapter—only, inevitably, to once again be drawn into Freeman’s fine writing and exquisite detail. And, as you say, the unflappable brilliance of the Great Unraveller always elevates any narrative in which he appears.

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    • There’s something about the way Freeman writes that really speaks to me, so that even when his plots don’t necessarily compel — as here — the characters, situations, and deductions are still strong enough to make reading them pure joy. It helps, as you say, that you can rely on Thorndyke’s “unflappable brilliance” — somehow his guaranteed heroics don’t pall as they seem to with a lot of the modern action man heroes in the same idiom of competence porn.

      Maybe it’s because they — as with the other Freeman I take so much delight from — seem so realistic and possible, brought about by intelligence, hard craft, and clever observation. Seeing the “how” of how it’s done never gets old for me.

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  2. Thanks for this excellent review.
    I have found Freeman fascinating for the insight into the world view point of a man from last century afford to the reader 100 year later. View point point changing as he become older and the next war approach. I call it archeology of GAD.

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    • “Archaeology of GAD” is a wonderful phrase — digging out the bones of the stories that gave rise to our beloved detective fiction.

      That’s definitely one of the joys of Freeman, especially these early ones where the plots don’t quite match up to the brilliance of the premise. Later on he became much more adpet at the skills GAD required, but as a progenitor he also has more than enough of interest about what he achieved. I consider myself very fortunate to have discovered his work.

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  3. I picked up a copy of this a few years ago. It’s one of the few Freeman novels available from Pocket Books that I know about. I also have The Unconscious Witness, which despite the similar sounding title seems to have been released much later in Freeman’s career.

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  4. The narrator makes the following statement:
    “I am not, as the reader may have gathered, a particularly cautious man or much given to suspicion.”

    I think that is pretty accurate.

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