R. Austin Freeman – ‘John Thorndyke’s Cases’ (1909)

Dustwrapper of 1st UK edition (www.dustjackets.com)

R. Austin Freeman (1862-1943) was one of the most influential and important writers of mystery fiction and his career spanned all the way from the Edwardian era to the end of the so-called ‘Golden Age’. Creator of the first truly scientific detective, Dr John Evelyn Thorndyke, inventor of the ‘inverted’ mystery story (a type familiar to more modern audiences of TV series such as Columbo) and a short story writer of such quality that he is the only author to have earned more than one entry on the definitive Queen’s Quorum list of the best 100 short story collections. On that list he actually had two Thorndyke short story collections (this and the 1912 collection The Singing Bone which included his first inverted stories) and one written under the pseudonym Clifford Ashdown, which he created in collaboration with fellow doctor John James Pitcairn. It is no surprise then that he had such an impact on mystery writers who followed him, including but not limited to Freeman Wills Crofts, Dorothy L. Sayers and John Rhode.

This is his first short story collection featuring Thorndyke and was published in 1909, just two years after his debut (along with the narrator of many of his early books Dr. Christopher Jervis) in the novel The Red Thumb Mark. Detectives who used science to aid them had already appeared before, in particular Sherlock Holmes and various creations of L. T. Meade, written in collaboration with real-life doctors Robert Eustace and Clifford Halifax. But Freeman took a unique approach to the science of detection, never including any technical information in his early books which he had not verified by personal experiment, thus giving the stories a firm and believable foundation. While other writers of the time would stretch credulity, Freeman only wrote about what he could prove by demonstration. No death-rays or quasi-mystical elements were found in his books, Thorndyke more usually being found investigating dust, human hairs or footprints. These first collection of eight stories is a definitive example of why Freeman is one of the most important mystery writers of the first half of the 20th Century.

1st UK edition

The Man With The Nailed Shoes

(no previous publication traced)

The first story in this collection, which can almost be considered a novella, is by far the longest and also the only one which has so far not been traced to an original magazine publication before the date of this book. It is presented in two parts, the first of which deals mostly with Thorndyke’s deductions concerning footprint and tidal clues on the beach close to the village of Little Sundersley, where his narrator Christopher Jervis is acting as a locum tenens. This places the action of the story between their debut in The Red Thumb Mark and Jervis’ becoming Thorndyke’s junior full-time. Together the pair arrive on the scene just as the body of a stabbed man is found close to the shore, the area around showing traces of only the victim and one other person.

Plan of St Bridget’s Bay

Thorndyke is as always strong here on footprints and tides (as he is again in A Mystery Of The Sand Hills) and his deductions bear fruit when he is engaged to defend an ex-convict called Draper who has an apparent motive and opportunity for committing the crime. Furthermore, footprints which appear to match his are discovered by the body. The police are confident, if rather reluctant to arrest Draper as he is well liked in the locale and things go badly for him at the magistrates hearing with a conviction in court seeming a certainty.

As if often the case in Freeman’s stories, Jervis is unhappy when Thorndyke refuses to share his opinions and deductions but once the trial begins we and Jervis are enlightened as Thorndyke clearly shows the fallacies in the prosecution case. Both physical clues and medical evidence are overturned by his clear analysis and the actual perpetrators are clear for all to see.

The Strangers Latchkey

(first published in Pearson’s Magazine, Jan 1909 pp 17-30)

In this case, Dr Jervis has recently joined Thorndyke as his junior but, missing his old routine, is again acting as locum, this time for a colleague called Hanshaw who has taken a holiday. When the son of Hanshaw’s sister, a wealthy widow, disappears without trace suspicion falls on her niece, who stands to inherit should anything happen to the boy. Thormdyke, quickly summoned by the distraught mother, investigates the house of mysterious stranger who has recently appeared in the neighbourhood. Strong physical cluing involving the fluff disinterred from a key barrel and traces on the ground enable him not only to reconstruct the strangers appearance in detail but to follow a trail which eventually leads to the solution of the disappearance.

Rather unusually, here Thorndyke is physically involved in apprehending the miscreant, a scene portrayed in one of the excellent illustrations by H. M. Brock which were originally created for Pearson’s Magazine and are included in the early editions of the book.

The Anthropologist At Large

(first published in Pearson’s Magazine, Feb 1909 pp 166-177)

A robbery from the premises of a renowned collector whilst he is absent and the house is under the supervision of his brother provides Thorndyke with the opportunity to expound on racial characteristics when a discarded hat is found nearby. Here Sherlock Holmes’ deductions in The Blue Carbuncle are revealed as demonstrably inferior to Thorndyke’s as the latter discovers the late owner’s ethnicity and occupation from examination of the hat (it may be remembered that Holmes only traced the owner because he advertised for a man whose name appeared on a label attached to a goose found with the hat).

Transverse sections of human hair (3 types)

Traces of hair and dust extracted from the abandoned hat are enough for Thorndyke to narrow down his search and soon he has identified the place of work of the owner, quickly followed by the man himself. Freeman provides a photograph featuring cross-sections of human hair to allow the reader to follow Throndyke’s analysis.

note: This story features the first appearance of the patent dust-extractor invented by Thorndyke’s laboratory assistant Nathaniel Polton, used again many times in later stories.

The Blue Sequin

(first published in Pearson’s Magazine, Dec 1908 pp 602-613)

The first Thorndyke short story to be published (no earlier one has to-date been traced) is also one of the highlights of this collection. Here, Thorndyke and Jervis (the latter presumably now a full-time junior) are summoned to investigate the death of a woman found alone in a first-class railway carriage. A penetrating wound on the head which caused her death seems to point clearly to murder. Suspicion falls upon a old acquaintance of the dead woman, an artist who was working in the area and was seen arguing with her a short time before.

The body is discovered

Soon on the scene, Thorndyke’s examination of the train carriage and the body give him some suggestions which he uses to develop an entirely different view of the case. A stray blue sequin from the hat of the dead woman and the seemingly irrelevant obtaining of some ox gall from a local butcher prove to be critical in demonstrating the real cause of death and the identity of the responsible party.

The shortest story in the collection, this has been anthologised many times, which is not surprising given it’s succinctness and the high quality of the mystery and Thorndyke’s elucidation.

The Moabite Cipher

(first published in Pearson’s Magazine, May 1909 pp 478-492)

Thorndyke and Jervis are conveniently on the scene during a Ducal visit when a suspicious looking character, being shadowed by series regular Inspector Badger, is killed in an accident involving a police horse. A sealed but unstamped envelope is found in the dead man’s pocket and when Thorndyke accompanies the police to deliver it, the recipient manages to give them the slip. Opening the envelope they find an odd cipher written in Yiddish in the old Moabite script which proves to be ‘a farrago of unintelligible nonsense’ as Thorndyke had surmised, merely containing odd words and unconnected letters. The newspapers report Thorndyke’s involvement and soon he is outwitting an attempt to burgle his chambers to recover the cipher, which is not even in his possession as the police have taken it to be deciphered by an expert.

Containing an excellent piece of misdirection over the nature of the cipher and how it should be decoded, this is another high quality story and has been anthologised several times.

This story was filmed as an episode (series 2, episode 9) of ‘The Rivals Of Sherlock Homes’, starring Barrie Ingham as Thorndyke. The series is available on DVD from Network.

Dustwrapper of 1st US edition (www.dustjackets.com)

The Mandarin’s Pearl

(first published in Pearson’s Magazine, Jun 1909 pp 660-676)

Thorndyke investigates the history of an apparently cursed jewel which has come into the possession of a rather neurotic young man called Calverley, known to his regular associate Mr Brodribb. Calverley, who recently obtained the titular pearl, is certain he is being followed and claims to have seen a mysterious Chinaman in the mirror at the home of his cousin, with whom he is staying. He believes these phenomena are connected to the history of the pearl, which he had heard from a Captain Raggerton, a friend of his cousin. When tragedy strikes, Thorndyke is able by careful study to reveal the truth of the mysterious figure and expose the perpetrators.

The Apparition In The Mirror

Probably the least ground breaking story in this collection, this suffers from including several tropes which are less engaging or palatable to modern readers. The cursed jewel motif is rather dated, as is the concept of the mysterious Chinaman, though at the time it would have been very familiar to readers. Thorndyke’s elucidation is of sufficient quality but the story may seem somewhat dated for modern tastes.

The Aluminium Dagger

(first published in Pearson’s Magazine, Mar 1909 pp 250-265)

A classic locked room mystery, here Thorndyke is summoned by a man called Curtis, a client of his regular associate Mr Marchmont, to the scene when a man is found stabbed in the back in a room from which is seems impossible for anyone to have escaped. The investigators find the Italian word for traitor engraved upon the dagger which is the murder weapon and hear how the previous week several Italians had been lurking about the premises and the dead man had received a number of threatening letters. Inspector Badger, hearing that Curtis’ daughter had visited the victim the previous night and had a potential motive for the crime, soon arrests the unfortunate girl for murder. But Thorndyke, following the physical clues from the letters and dagger and the ciu bono motive relating to the dead man’s will, soon evolves a totally different theory which he demonstrates to the astonishment of the hapless Badger. Again this story shows Thorndyke on top form and it is not surprising that it has been anthologised several times.

There is an excellent reading of this story available on the Bitesized Audio Classics YouTube channel here

A Message From The Deep Sea

(first published in Pearson’s Magazine, Jul 1909 pp 104-120)

Thorndyke goes to the aid of his former pupil Dr Hart, who feels rather out of his depth when he is summoned to the scene of the murder of a young woman found with her throat cut in the lodging house she inhabits. Hart is acting as assistant to the police surgeon in the district, a Dr Davidson, who is immediately hostile to Thorndyke’s presence and rude in his interactions with someone he sees as an interloper, an attitude which proves to be counterproductive as the case progresses.

‘Sand’ found on victim’s pillow

Traces of what appears to be sand on the dead woman’s pillow, some pieces of a candle and a tress of red hair found in her hand prove pivotal in unravelling the actual course of events. The police, guided by Dr Davidson, arrest the red-headed daughter of the lodging house’s owner but in a dramatic final courtroom scene Thorndyke reveals the truth – to the embarrassment of Dr Davidson. Another really strong story which finishes this collection on a high note.

This story was filmed as the opening episode of series one of ‘The Rivals Of Sherlock Homes’, starring John Neville as Thorndyke. The series is available on DVD from Network.


A Note On Story Choice

As mentioned above, no previous publication of The Man With The Nailed Shoes has been traced from before its appearance in this collection. All the other stories were published in Pearson’s Magazine between December 1908 and July 1909, not including April 1909. That month the Thorndyke story The Scarred Finger was published in Pearson’s but this not included in this collection. Why The Man With The Nailed Shoes was chosen in preference is unclear but it might be because The Scarred Finger dealt with fingerprint evidence in a similar fashion to Freeman first Thorndyke novel The Red Thumb Mark.

The Scarred Finger eventually appeared in The Singing Bone (1912) as The Old Lag, where it was the only non-inverted story.



Dr John Thorndyke Short Stories #1

Succeeded by The Singing Bone


Collector’s Notes

This book is readily available in paperback, hardback and in ebook format on sites such as Project Gutenburg and Roy Glashan’s Library. An audiobook is available from audible and other sites read by Graham Scott. It is also available free with volunteer readers on the Librivox website.


First Edition Details


Originally published by Chatto and Windus, London 1909

Brown Cloth Boards, pp 288 + 32pp adverts, 8vo

Title and Author stamped in gold on spine. ‘Chatto & Windus’ stamped in gold at bottom.

Title stamped in sandy pink with black edging above scene from ‘The Blue Sequin’ in sandy pink on front. Author stamped in black at bottom.

Dustwrapper priced at 3/6 net on spine.

4 x Photographs (tipped in)

5 x Illustrations by H. M. Brock (tipped in)

5 x Sketches (embedded in text)


Originally published as Dr. Throndyke’s Cases by Dodd, Mead & Company, 1931

Green Cloth Boards, pp 312, 8vo

Title and Author stamped in black on spine. ‘Dodd, Mead & Company’ stamped in black at bottom.

Title and Author stamped in black on front. Silhouette of man with raised stick stamped in black at bottom left.

Dustwrapper priced at $2 on front flap.

1st US edition


R E Faust


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