Created by doctor, surgeon, and pharmacist Richard Austin Freeman in 1907, Dr. John Thorndyke brought a scientific approach to crime scene investigation long before real life police detectives got around to it. Over a career that spanned thirty-five years, Austin Freeman’s creation would introduce the public to many of the techniques of crime scene investigation we now take for granted—the use of microscopes to study hair and fibre samples, soil and blood analysis, fingerprinting. Dr Thorndyke is one of those pieces of crime fiction that became crime fact.
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Dr. Thorndyke’s inventor was born in London in 1862, the youngest of five children. His father was a tailor. The circumstances of his birth would shape Austin Freeman’s life. In those days, medicine in Britain was still the preserve of privately educated gentlemen such as Arthur Conan Doyle. Austin Freeman may have qualified from medical school, but in class conscious England, his humble roots made progress up the career ladder impossible. Over the years, he’d be forced to take work as a surgeon in Britain’s African colonies, as a physician in the women’s prison at Holloway, at an army induction center, and as health inspector at London’s equivalent of Ellis Island.
During his time in what is now Ghana, Austin Freeman contracted blackwater fever—a serious complication from malaria. With his career stalled and his health poor, the doctor turned to writing as a means of supporting his family.
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Dr. Thorndyke first appeared in The Red Thumb Mark, a novel about the theft of a hoard of diamonds from an apparently untouched safe. He’d go on to feature in 21 more novels and 40 short stories. Thorndyke’s career would begin during peaceful Edwardian era, survive World War I, the Great Depression and the rise of fascism. His final outing would be in The Jacob Street Mystery, a book partly written in a bomb shelter as Austin Freeman and his wife took refuge from the Nazi blitz. That was in 1942. The author died a year later.
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Unlike his two most popular contemporaries, Sherlock Holmes and Max Carrados, Thorndyke is a man almost totally lacking in ticks, quirks, or indeed any real hinterland. Beyond his dislike of firearms and his passion for Trichinopoly cheroots, we learn little about his private world. What we know for certain is that he trained as a doctor at the fictional St. Margaret’s Hospital, took up the law with a view to becoming a pathologist, then switched to take up a role as what he himself describes as a “medical jurispractioner.” Thankfully this job description never caught on. Medical examiner is lot easier to spell.
Tall, athletic, handsome and well-to-do, Dr. Thorndyke is—like so many detectives—unmarried. He lives in King’s Bench Walk, conveniently close to the Old Bailey, London’s famous criminal law courts. His house is also his office and laboratory. He shares the premises with fellow doctor and chronicler of his adventures, Christopher Jervis. Even by the standards of Edwardian England, the two men’s relationship is a close one —when they travel on an investigation they share a bag. Watson stopped short of packing Holmes’ underwear for him.
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Though every few years Jervis reminds the reader, and possibly himself, that he has a wife (she’s called Juliet), women feature as infrequently in Thorndyke’s world as in that of Holmes. When they do appear, it’s usually as a maid who discovers a corpse, or, more rarely, as a victim (deceased).
Austin Freeman’s writing has been dismissed as mechanical and awkward by some critics, but it is not without its charm. Raymond—no mean stylist himself—thought Austin Freeman a much better writer than people gave him credit for, praising his effortless storytelling and the descriptions of walks across a gloomy gaslit London.
Generally, Thorndyke stories are all business, with few of the engaging glimpses of the detectives’ domestic lives that draw readers into the world of 221b Baker Street or Carrados’ home at The Turrets. The pleasingly wrinkled old laboratory assistant, Nathaniel Polton—rescued from a life of misery by Thorndyke and eternally grateful—gets a few moments to shine and comedy is provided—as is so often the case—by the police in the shape of Inspector Badger and Superintendant Miller.
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While no literary revolutionary, Austin Freeman did originate one new plot device that would become a staple of crime fiction. In his story The Case of Oscar Brodski (1912) he introduced the “inverted” plot. In this, the story is divided into two parts. The first is a minutely detailed account of the criminal act. The second tells of the arrival of the detective and his unravelling of the case. These stories are not so much “whodunnits” as “howdoyouproveits.” At first the idea might seem unworkable, but as Austin Freeman wrote, “I calculated that the reader would be so occupied with the crime he would overlook the evidence.” The inverted format that Austin Freeman pioneered later became widespread, with perhaps the most famous examples in the TV shows Dragnet and Columbo.
Aside from skillful plotting, the strength of Austin Freeman’s work lies in his commitment to accuracy, to illustrating “the application to the detection of crime of the ordinary scientific method,” as he put it. There is no mcguffin or flim-flam in the Dr. Thorndyke stories, no mysterious killer mushrooms or unidentified venomous reptiles. If Dr. Thorndyke recounts details of the life of the Australian liver fluke, you can be sure the description is accurate and its relevance to the case tried and true.
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The author was so committed to accuracy (or maybe he was just a science nerd) he tested all the experiments used in the books to see if they worked. He even devised some of the methods used by his criminals, developing a means of creating false fingerprints, for example. Many of the more ingenious murder weapons that feature in his tales were the product of his own ingenuity and tinkering. If a lightweight dagger is fired from an obsolete French musket in a Thorndyke yarn, you can bet that on a shooting range somewhere in southern England, Austin Freeman had done just that, and measured it for accuracy, too.
Author’s note: Richard Austin Freeman’s fiction was admired not only by Raymond Chandler, but also by George Orwell. However, his political views merit a warning. The author was right-wing, anti-immigration, and a proponent of eugenics. His nastier opinions rarely find their way into the detective stories discussed here, but the reader ought to be aware of them.