Tuesday, July 5, 2016

The Red Thumb Mark by Richard Austin Freeman

First Sentence:  "Conflagratam An 1677."
A valuable cache has been stolen from the safe of a diamond business owned by John Hornby and newly joined by his two nephews.  The safe appears untouched, except for a piece of paper in the bottom and two blood-smeared thumb prints which are identified as belonging to one of the nephews.  It is up to Dr. John Thorndyke, and his new assistant Dr. Jervis to prove the young man's innocence before he's found guilty and hanged.
Gratefully, the story has no prologue.  There is, however, an author's preface that is well worth reading.  Not only is it fascinating in its own right, but it also accustoms one to the style of language used; a much more elegant style than is used today.  It is interesting to see how our language has evolved.  In Edwardian times, the word "intimately" does not mean nearly what it does today.
From a casual meeting, we are introduced to Thorndyke, an M.D. and D.Sc. who had hoped to become a coroner but became a lecturer on medical jurisprudence, as well as Polton, Thorndykes' manservant and scientific assistant.  Our narrator is Jervis, a young general-practice physician without a practice who is hired by Thorndyke.  Mrs. John Hornsby, flighty-mannered wife of the business owner, and Juliet Gibson, strong-spirited, long-time companion to Mrs. Hornsby, are significant to the plot.  
There is a sense and influence of Sherlock Holmes, including interesting observations on the way in which people from different professions move.  However, what is nice about Thorndyke and Jervis is that their relationship is both more equal, but also one of master and apprentice, and certainly, of employer and employee.  Thorndyke appreciates and compliments Jervis' contributions, rather than just views him as a chronicler. 
One thing that is particularly nice is that Freeman really explains how Thorndyke reaches the conclusions he does.  The information on the various scientific experiments and analyses is fascinating.  Although there is one major coincidence, it is acknowledged by the characters as being such.  And who doesn't appreciate a good courtroom scene that ends with a good plot twist.
"The Red Thumb Mark" is a very good pre-"Golden Age" mystery with a very satisfactory ending.  If Freeman is an author unknown to you, it's well worth becoming acquainted with his books.

THE RED THUMB MARK (Hist Mys-Dr. John Thorndyke-England-Early 1900s/Edwardian) - VG
            Freeman, Richard Austin - 1st in series
            Skyhorse Publishing, July 2016

1 comment:

  1. I read this one a couple of years back. Written (if I recall correctly) in 1907, it's a fascinating look back at a time when fingerprints were still a relatively new tool for police, who were quite unwilling to admit the possibility that such convincing evidence could be faked. Freeman and Dr. Thorndyke were pioneers of the "scientific detective" school. Thanks for reviewing them!