Richard Austin Freeman (1862-1943) is without question one of the most important and influential authors of the Golden Age of detection, having begun his career in the genre at the beginning of the century and continuing to produce notable mysteries up until the middle of the second world war. Freeman had qualified as a doctor in 1886 but had been unsuccessful in maintaining a career in general practice which would enable him to support his family. His first forays into the genre of crime fiction had been in collaboration with a fellow doctor, John James Pitcairn, in several series of short stories, including twelve featuring Romney Pringle, a gentleman of the ‘rogue’ school which also included E. W. Hornung’s A. J. Raffles and Arthur Morrison’s Horace Dorrington. Other stories followed, including six collectively titled From A Surgeon’s Diary, which like with the Pringle stories were published in Cassell’s magazine between 1902-1905 as by Clifford Ashdown, each of the two authors contributing one pseudonymous name to create the alias. As their collaboration dissipated Freeman took on an increasingly larger share of the workload, until the partnership was dissolved and Freeman, who had already published a number of articles and lighthearted short stories on his own, decided to continue alone under his real name. Their brief partnership was not completely forgotten, however, as their sole contemporaneous book publication The Adventures Of Romney Pringle (Ward Lock 1902) was selected for the ‘Queen’s Quorum’ and became one of the rarest, most sought after and expensive mystery short story collections. Copies in the variant red and blue boards usually fetch £1500 or more, with the red being the rarer version.
In 1907 Freeman made the first step which was to lead to his becoming one of the most celebrated mystery writers of the day when he created Dr. John Evelyn Thorndyke, an expert in medical jurisprudence, and published the first book to feature him, The Red Thumb Mark. One of the first mysteries to deal with fingerprint evidence, it was selected as a Haycraft Queen cornerstone, as was his next published novel, The Eye Of Osiris. In December 1908 the first Thorndyke short story appeared in Pearson’s Magazine and a collection of six titled John Thorndyke’s Cases appeared in 1909.
Although this was the second Thorndyke mystery novel published by Freeman, this book was actually written after The Mystery Of 31New Inn (published four months later in 1912) and had already been through a major revision. The original manuscript version was published as The Other Eye Of Osiris by Battered Silicon Dispatch Box in 1999 and, while extremely interesting to Freeman scholars, it is in my opinion inferior to the final narrative. Since this book mentions the case featured in 31 New Inn, I would recommend reading that book before this one if one wants to preserve the timeline.
The Eye Of Osiris is narrated by Dr. Paul Berkeley, recently qualified as a doctor and working as a locum tenens in the area of Fetter Lane in London, close to the Temple, where Thorndyke has his chambers in King’s Bench Walk. The first chapter acts as an introduction and is set two years earlier. Berkeley, then a pupil and admirer of Thorndyke, relates the scene at the end of one of the latter’s lectures. Having spoken on the subject of survivorship, Thorndyke mentions a relevant case in the newspapers – the mysterious disappearance of a man named John Bellingham who, after returning from a trip overseas, appears unannounced at the house of a relative called Hurst. Since Hurst is absent he proposes to wait in the study but when Hurst returns he is nowhere to be found. Later a scarab that Bellingham wore on his watch chain is found in the garden of his brother’s house, suggesting he had also been there, but no trace of him is ever discovered.
Two years pass and Berkeley has largely forgotten the story until he discovers one of his regular patients is one Godfrey Bellingham, the missing man’s brother, now living in virtual poverty in a court off Fetter Lane. There he meets Godfrey’s daughter Ruth, with whom he begins to fall in love, and discovers that the Bellingham’s poverty is due to a strange provision in the missing man’s will which makes administration of his considerable estate impossible.
Theorising quite correctly that this is a case where Thorndyke’s knowledge and experience might be invaluable, Berkeley soon approaches his ex-teacher in the hopes that he might aid the Bellinghams. Thorndyke agrees and is intruiged by the facts as reported and, aided by his junior Dr Christopher Jervis, begins to investigate – despite some early stubbornness by Bellingham senior. Clues and interested parties abound, including the missing man’s love of Egyptology, his unemotional and reticent lawyer Mr Jellicoe, a presentation that he had recently made to the British Museum and his luggage being discovered unclaimed in a railway cloak-room. But when parts of a dismembered body begin to appear close to the house once occupied by Godfrey Bellingham and his daughter Ruth, things begin to look dangerous for the latter.
In The Unpleasantness At The Bellona Club Dorothy L. Sayers’ series-regular Charles Parker makes the following observation to Lord Peter Wimsey when the two come across their chief suspects detective fiction collection – ‘That fellow Freeman is full of plots about poisonings and wills and survivorship, isn’t he?’ In this book we are given all of that and more. The scope of scientific and legal themes addressed is extensive and includes such diverse subjects as adipocere and the action of submersion in water on dead bodies, the laws on survivorship when a dead person’s body is missing, the art of embalming, dismemberment of bodies and the emerging innovation of x-ray photography. Thorndyke is knowledgeable on all these subjects and more, using his vast expertise to navigate through the issues which cloud the case. When it appears that there is someone manipulating the events from behind the scenes he is able to see their stratagems and the motive behind them, enabling him to deduce what has actually happened to John Bellingham. This knowledge provides the touchstone to identify a suspect, resulting in a final interview where the truth is revealed.
In many ways this is a mystery that is ahead of its time, incorporating all the elements which would be familiar to devotees of the Golden Age, though written a decade before the date usually regarded as when that era began. However, it also contains elements that echo back to the Victorian age, which is not surprising given Freeman’s love of Charles Dickens, a writer who was a notable influence on him . The most glaring example of this is the inclusion of a love story to the plot, a device Freeman used regularly, particularly in his early books. Some modern readers may find those sections slightly mawkish, though that aspect is slightly counterbalanced by a discussion on the importance of biological sex between Thorndyke and Berkeley which is far more modern in its outlook. That small caveat aside, this is a first-class mystery, fully deserving its status as one of the greatest and most influential detective novels of the Edwardian era. Easily available in book, electronic and audio versions, it should be part of any serious collection of Golden Age detective fiction.
Dr John Thorndyke #2
Preceded by The Red Thumb Mark
Succeeded by The Mystery Of 31 New Inn
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 Hodder & Stoughton, London 1911
Brown Cloth Boards, pp 304 + 12pp adverts, 8vo
Title stamped in white and author stamped in black on spine. ‘Hodder & Stoughton’ stamped in green at bottom, with ornamental pillar design in green and black above.
Title stamped in white and author stamped in black on front board. Egyptian style ‘Eye’ design in black, white and green below.
Dustwrapper not priced.
note: These are the details for the first issue of approx 150 copies. A 2nd issue of the 1st edition was printed on brown cloth with gilt lettering on spine and black lettering on front board.
Originally published as ‘The Vanishing Man’ by Dodd, Mead & co, New York 1912
Navy Blue Cloth Boards, pp 352, 8vo
Title and Author stamped in orange on spine. ‘Dodd, Mead & Company’ stamped in orange at bottom.
Title and Author stamped in orange on front, separated by pictorial design of three men with a torch in black, orange and grey.
Dustwrapper priced at $2 on front flap.
R E Faust
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