The short story collection The Great Portrait Mystery (1918) occupies an odd position in the oeuvre of R. Austin Freeman. Five of the seven stories herein have almost nothing to do with each other — tonally, thematically, genre-wise — and the other two are inverted tales of detection featuring his famous medical jurist character Dr. John Evelyn Thorndyke. So were Freeman’s publishers simply fancying up some of his B-material by including a couple of Thorndyke tales to draw otherwise-uninterested readers to this collection? Let’s find out.
First, and the longest piece in here, is ‘The Great Portrait Mystery’ (1918), which is perhaps best thought of as R. Austin Freeman’s The Da Vinci Code. Secret messages in old documents, a treasure hunt of inestimable value, hidden passages, skulduggery, suspicious types, classic artwork, links to royalty in the 17th century…all this and more awaits you. It’s all conveyed with the sort of pluck, derring-do, and good common sense that makes you suspect there’s always a cucumber sandwich well within reach, with any peril safely off the page and probably not all that perilous anyway. Concerning an ingenious theft of a portrait from the National Gallery in London, things are complicated when the painting is returned almost immediately.
It was evident that a fraud had been committed; and a most elaborate fraud… But what could be the object of that fraud?
There’s much fun to be hand in watching curator Joseph Fittleworth and his belle-to-be, the superbly capable Miss Katharine Hyde, cannon around trying to interpret events and get ahead of the miscreants who are baffling them so, and the dialogue really does read like something from The Da Vinci Code (2004): “…poor old [Samuel] Pepys’s eyesight became so bad that he had to give up keeping a shorthand diary after 1670”. The ending has a ring of distinct convenience about it, and the enterprise as a whole is unlikely to live long in the memory, but it would be a hard heart indeed that couldn’t enjoy the ride while it lasts.
Switching tones and genres with alacrity, ‘The Bronze Parrot’ (1918) finds us in very different territory: the mousy, put upon Rev. Deodatus Jawley, curate at a boys’ school, meekly going about his business until a chance discovery happens to bring about a complete reversal in the man’s attitude…to be met with a mixture of outrage, sensation, and fear. I suppose this is more of a humorous tale than anything, and the terminology Freeman must use in order to convey the out of character conduct of our protagonist — since this is a family business, we’ll have none of your modern foul language — is certainly good comedic writing. As to the point of the whole thing…your guess is as good as mine.
Thorndyke’s first appearance occurs in ‘The Missing Mortgagee’ (1914), which, oddly, make an early reference to “the remarkable case of Percival Band” which would appear to be the other Thorndyke story included later on in this same volume. How came they to be presented this way round? The mind boggles. This tale concerns Mr. Thomas Elton, who has found himself in the clutches of unscrupulous moneylender Mr. Solomon:
“I originally borrowed fifty pounds from you, and I’m now paying you eighty pounds a year in addition to the insurance premium. That’s close on a hundred a year; just about half that I manage to earn… If you stick it up any farther you won’t leave me enough to keep body and soul together; which really means that I shan’t be able to pay you at all.”
It is perhaps unsurprising that, upon meeting Solomon by chance one day, Elton’s feelings are that “he could have battered that sensual, complacent face out of all human likeness, with something uncommonly like enjoyment”, and when events transpire to result in Solomon’s death, Elton will seize at an opportunity to be free of all his problems. The invoking of Thorndyke and his attendant Dr Christopher Jervis at this point is little more than Freeman playing to the gallery: there’s very little to unravel, and it’s achieved with a remarkable ease which is all the less impressive because of how little work the criminal did to achieve the misdirection in the first place. Freeman’s attention to minor points like Elton’s penury is as pinpoint as ever — c.f. the man’s single room lodgings, where “by sitting down on the bed, you converted it into a sitting-room.” — but his plotting acumen is lacking here, and the era’s rendering of the story’s Hebrew characters leaves an unpleasant taste in the mouth.
At the risk of drawing too many parallels with anachronistic film references, ‘Powder Blue and Hawthorn’ (1918) reads a little like Ocean’s Eleven (1960). Clearly something is up from the very off…
Mr. Henry Palmer looked furtively, but critically, at Dr. Macmuffigan. He had been told that on Friday night he would most probably find the doctor drunk. And so it had turned out. But the question that agitated Mr. Palmer was: how drunk was he, and, above all, was he drunk enough?
…when the suitably sauced Dr. Macmuffigan is brought along, via the application of more whisky, to pronounce death on a body he’s not seen before, you may get a sense of where this is going — not least because of how common this occurrence seems to be in the Thorndyke books I’ve read to date. This could, like most heist plots, have been strung out to tedious length, but Freeman’s decision to jump ahead to further on down the track is a good one, and the final section, while pregnant with coincidence of the highest order, lands all the better for not having spent 60,000 words getting there.
We return — or, er, recede — to Dr. Thorndyke again for ‘Percival Bland’s Proxy’ (1913), which is one of the best stories to feature the character I’ve yet read. With the ingenious Mr. Bland taking an opportunity to avoid the consequences of his criminal indiscretions, the fun of these short-form inverted mysteries is trying to spot where the errors are made by which the criminal will be identified. Once Thorndyke and Jervis are brought in to investigate — and even here Thorndyke indulges in characteristically modest demurral, “Every man to his trade” — it’s simply a matter of when the fatal point will arise.
I’ll confess, I did not see the key pointer of this coming, and it hit with a wonderful one-two punch that’s all the more superb because of the precise assumption I had fallen into making. For all his care in not wishing to find mysteries where none reside — “We mustn’t forget that normal cases do exist, after all” — the real brilliance of Thorndyke is the insight with which he is able to sweep aside even the vaguest linger doubts, testament to Freeman having paid attention to his forebears and profiting off their sometimes too-knowledgable sleuths. One of these days, several years from now, I shall attempt to put together a list of pre-1920 stories likely to fascinate fans of the Golden Age, and for too many reasons to cite here I’ll be amazed if ‘Percival Bland’s Proxy’ isn’t on it.
A strange bird next, in the form of ‘The Attorney’s Conscience’ (1918). Our eponymous member of the bar, Mr. James Mitchell, sees finds an unfamiliar man writing a letter is his, Mitchell’s, chambers and, assuming he has entered the wrong dwelling, leaves momentarily only to return and find the man vanished.
The room was undeniably empty; and yet there was no exit save by the door at which I had entered. The affair was incomprehensible and beyond belief. Not only was the room empty; there was no sign of its having been entered.
His response to this being, at the very least, somewhat sanguine (“Hallucinations are awkward things. The brain that generates non existent fat men is not a sound brain.”), the experience becomes positively uncanny when the contents of a letter he writes changes in front of his eyes, and clearly some shenanigans are going on. Freeman is obviously enjoying himself here, throwing in more than a few good jokes…
“The question is,” said he, “what is the position of a man who threatens to cut his only son off with a shilling?”
“Well,” I replied, “in my limited experience as a playgoer, his position is usually in the middle of the hearth-rug, with his legs a-straddle, and his hands under his coat-tails.”
…but the eventual direction this takes, shrugging off any hopes I’d been fostering of an unacknowledged impossible crime in Freeman’s output, puts in rather more in line for a collection due out this September than any strict detective fiction anthology.
All this genre flip-flopping left me unsure what to expect from ‘The Luck of Barnabas Mudge’ (1918), with that worthy discovering a fortune in an abandoned cottage and trying to work out how he’ll account for his new wealth. For a while, it seems that this was to be a sort of comedy of errors, with Barney unable to move the loot first on account of the nearby farmer using fish to fertilise his field and then due to other factors in the small town. However, things progress, keeping you in a vague suspense as to whether that eponymous luck will be favourable or otherwise.
Freeman’s on good form here, clearly enjoying a return to that field for one of the odder examples of plotting from someone known for their detective fiction (“Three times more did that melancholy procession slowly perambulate that marine necropolis.”) and moving his plot on with a coincidence or two atop some already unlikely events…but I enjoyed where this ended up and the message used to get us there. Can’t say as I’d want to read too much of this sort of meandering tale in any given year, but I also appreciate the desire of the author to put his feet up and have a slightly easier day doing something a little less taxing. Plus, this brought the phrase “Immortal scissors!” to my attention, for use in moments of great surprise (long-time readers may remember that I’ve been known to opt for a “Hairy Aaron!” every now and again, thanks to Norman Berrow). Difficult to recommend this final story too breathlessly, but if you’ve made it this far you’ll likely enjoy it.
So, what of a verdict on this collection? This, er, hardly commends itself as among the more vital of Freeman’s writings, with the paucity of Thorndyke opening the doors to what feels like some loose sketches tried out to relieve an idea or two which had been rattling around for a little while, and on that basis it can be skipped by all but the completists among you. There’s nowt wrong with stretching your writerly legs, nd no shame in it, but I’ll be hoping for a slightly more rigorous time when RAF and I next meet, when Helen Vardon confesses all…
R. Austin Freeman on The Invisible Event:
The Red Thumb Mark (1907)
John Thorndyke’s Cases, a.k.a. Dr. Thorndyke’s Cases [ss] (1909)
The Eye of Osiris, a.k.a. The Vanishing Man (1911)
The Mystery of 31 New Inn (1912)
The Singing Bone, a.k.a. The Adventures of Dr. Thorndyke [ss] (1912)
A Silent Witness (1914)
The Great Portrait Mystery [ss] (1918)
The D’Arblay Mystery (1926)
The Magic Casket [ss] (1927)
As a Thief in the Night (1928)
Mr. Pottermack’s Oversight (1930)