R. Austin Freeman | Freeman's Early Novels | The Eye of Osiris and The Golden Age Detective Novel | A Silent Witness | John Thorndyke's Cases | Later Short Stories | The Red Thumb Mark | Freeman's Inverted Short Stories | The Shadow of the Wolf | Mr. Pottermack's Oversight | When Rogues Fall Out / Dr. Thorndyke's Discovery | For the Defense: Dr. Thorndyke | The Cat's Eye | The Mystery of Angelina Frood | The Bad Middle Period Books | The Penrose Mystery | Felo De Se? / Death at the Inn | The Stoneware Monkey | Mr. Polton Explains | The Jacob Street Mystery | Recommended Reading
A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection Home Page
The Eye of Osiris (1911)
The Mystery of Angelina Frood (1924) (Chapters 1-8, 27-29)
Mr. Pottermack's Oversight (1930) (Prologue, Chapters 1-10)
When Rogues Fall Out / Dr. Thorndyke's Discovery (1932)
Felo De Se? / Death at the Inn (1937)
The Stoneware Monkey (1938) (Chapters 1-6)
The Jacob Street Mystery / The Unconscious Witness (1942)
The five original Dr. Thorndyke short story collections:
John Thorndyke's Cases / Dr. Thorndyke's Cases (collected 1909)
The Singing Bone (collected 1912)
Dr. Thorndyke's Casebook / The Blue Scarab (collected 1923)
The Puzzle Lock (collected 1925)
The Magic Casket (collected 1927)
Note: All the short stories from the above five collections are also available in The Dr. Thorndyke Short Story Omnibus.
Other short tales:
The Best Dr. Thorndyke Detective Stories
"The Dead Hand" (1912)
The Great Portrait Mystery
The Exploits of Danby Croker (1911 in magazines, collected 1916)
If two titles are given, such as When Rogues Fall Out / Dr. Thorndyke's Discovery, the first is the British title of a book, the second is the American.
Next we move on to some of Freeman's short tales in John Thorndyke's Cases (1908 - 1909) and three 1920's collections. Two of these are fine impossible crime tales, "The Mandarin's Pearl" and "The Aluminum Dagger".
Next we look at Freeman's other most important contribution to mystery fiction: the inverted story. These include the stories collected in The Singing Bone (1910-1912), a story known variously as "The Dead Hand" (1912) and The Shadow of the Wolf; and the novels Mr. Pottermack's Oversight (1930) and When Rogues Fall Out / Dr. Thorndyke's Discovery (1932).
Finally we conclude by looking at some of Freeman's late novels, especially such notable puzzle plots mysteries as Felo De Se? / Death at the Inn (1937) and The Jacob Street Mystery (1942).
It is striking that much of Freeman's best and most influential fiction was published during 1909-1912, a four-year period. This includes the superb puzzle plot works "31 New Inn" and The Eye of Osiris, both perhaps founding examples of the Golden Age of Mystery Fiction. And Freeman's invention of the inverted detective story, in The Singing Bone and the excellent "The Dead Hand". Plus we have the impossible crime short stories, "The Mandarin's Pearl" and "The Aluminum Dagger", and some clever rogue tales in The Exploits of Danby Croker.
"31 New Inn" is a good story. In it, Dr. Thorndyke has his full personality, but he does not seem to have his little green case full of scientific detection aids. He seems to be a detective, and a good one, but not yet a full scientific detective. "31 New Inn" does have Freeman's full plotting technique, of the sort that will reappear in The Eye of Osiris and A Silent Witness. There is the young doctor narrator of the story, who is involved in a complex adventure, largely independent at first of Dr. Thorndyke. There is the complex puzzle plot, well constructed along Freeman's patented lines of the "breakdown of identity". (This technique is discussed in depth on the article on realist school fiction, which is designed as a companion piece to the present work.) There is the well characterized Thorndyke, coming to the young doctor's aid and solving the mystery. Freeman seems to have used "31 New Inn" as a model for what a detective story should be like, some years later, when he wrote his masterpiece, The Eye of Osiris. If I were to compare the two stories, I would note that the plot of Osiris is even trickier and cleverer than "New Inn". This judgment might be related to the fact that I guessed "New Inn"'s plot - it seems ingenious but easy to solve - whereas Osiris had me completely baffled nearly till the end.
Freeman's next novel, A Silent Witness, also followed the same basic mold as the other two. Nothing works as well in this book, and much of the novel is a long meandering mess that never seems to come to any coherent point. Still, many parts of this book are excellent, and I am glad I read it. In addition to some very good plot ideas, Freeman's descriptive writing is excellent, especially in the opening chapters where the hero tramps over Hampstead Heath - I would not have missed these scenes for anything.
"31 New Inn" begins with a young doctor being taken on a mysterious journey in London, and being asked to see a patient. Only after this non-Thorndyke prologue does Thorndyke become involved in the action. Freeman will repeat this construction in several subsequent works. This plot pattern probably derives from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Greek Interpreter" (1893) in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, the classic story that introduced Sherlock's brother Mycroft. In Doyle's story, the young interpreter of the title is taken on a similar journey. Doyle's tale is also notable for the prominent part played by Dr. Watson, in his role as a physician. Medical matters will be similarly central in Freeman's works. Commentators have often pointed out the similarities between Holmes and Thorndyke, both being London-based consulting detectives of a scientific bent. Both men are symbols of Reason.
Everyone agrees that Freeman's The Singing Bone, collected in book form in 1912, founded the inverted detective story, a major genre in England during the period of the Golden Age (1920-1945). One wonders if Freeman's Thorndyke detective stories had a similar influence on the concept of "The Detective Novel" prevalent during this period. Freeman published four novels and two short story collections about Dr. Thorndyke during 1907-1914, a period usually described as being dominated by the short story. These novels are strategically positioned to be exactly in the right era as early detective novels in the Golden Age style. I have no idea if Freeman created this genre, but The Eye of Osiris is certainly a prominent early example of it, alongside Bentley's novel.
Some points: Freeman is often categorized as a "scientific" detective. This is certainly true, but this does not mean his works might not fall into other categories as well.
It is often said that Freeman's writings do not "play fair" with readers, because readers do not have Thorndyke's scientific expertise, and hence do not have the ability to anticipate his deductions and solve the mystery. This assertion is abundantly true of The Singing Bone. But it is not true of The Eye of Osiris. In that novel, the mystery is a traditional puzzle plot, and can be solved fairly by the reader. In fact, I eventually solved much, but by no means all, of Freeman's puzzle, shortly before Thorndyke revealed his solution.
Thorndyke is more interested in science than technology, while the exact opposite seems to be true of most American scientific detectives of that era, such as the heroes of Arthur B. Reeve, McHarg & Balmer, Cleveland Moffett, etc. Thorndyke has tremendous knowledge of medicine, botany, criminology, farming, etc., that he applies to solving his cases. Knowing is Thorndyke's principal paradigm. By contrast, the Americans seem interested in the high tech future that is to come, with its numerous extraordinary inventions. Sam Moskowitz has rightly linked these American writers with the genre of science fiction, and its concern with the technology of the future. The only technology that really interests Thorndyke, aside from laboratory microscopy, is photography. Freeman's characters actually have an antiquarian approach to life, regretting social change and the tearing down of old buildings and old ways of life. They are interested in English history and Egyptology, and are far from interested in any high tech future.
If knowing is the essence of science, and making the essence of technology, Freeman definitely expresses the scientific world view.
Freeman's works seem extraordinarily evocative of the biological world around us. The green world, especially in its microscopic manifestations, comes gloriously alive and present in Freeman's stories, especially The Singing Bone.
Freeman's book also seems anticipatory of many individual writers. Techniques in of The Eye of Osiris will pop up again in Golden Age books. Some examples:
Dorothy L. Sayers. The social setting of the novel, among scholarly but financially pinched middle class professionals, seems exactly the milieu of many of Sayers' characters (and Sayers herself). So is the prominence and respect given to woman intellectuals and scholars. Freeman's storytelling technique seems similar to Sayers as well. There is a full novel of character going on in the foreground, while the mystery events seem to erupt into this "literary" novel from the background. Reading it one has to wonder if Freeman was Sayers' principal literary model for the detective story.
Intellectuality. Both Thorndyke and the other characters are remarkably intellectual. This seems directly anticipatory of the intellectualism in Sayers and S.S. VanDine. In these later writers intellectuality centers on literature and art, respectively, and not on science and archeology, as in Freeman, but the basic concept of intellectualism remains. The many cultural and historical asides of Ellery Queen and John Dickson Carr also seem to have a potential model here. Once again, the simple characterization of Thorndyke as a scientific detective tends to disguise what he has in common with later writers. Have Thorndyke stop talking about medicine, and start talking about literature or history, and you have a novel very similar to Sayers et al.
Deduction. Freeman puts great emphasis here on Thorndyke's use of deduction and logical reasoning to derive his solutions. These deductions seem anticipatory of Ellery Queen. Thorndyke's summing up of the case in the penultimate chapter is full of the sort of long strings of logical deduction that one associates with Ellery Queen. (Deduction is also important in the works of Ronald Knox, and one might suspect that Freeman is a role model for Knox as well.)
John Dickson Carr. The hero-narrator of The Eye of Osiris is a decent, nice young man, trying to help the heroine out of difficulties, and marry her. He is aided by the fatherly Dr. Thorndyke, the older, wise man who actually solves the mystery. This is exactly the dramatis personae of many Carr novels, with the nice, masculine young hero - point of view character, his girl friend and love interest, aided by the fatherly detective Dr. Fell. In both Freeman and Carr, the hero is an admirable, highly intelligent young man, but not as extraordinary as the Great Detective who solves the mystery.
1) It opens with the narrator finding a body. But when he goes to summon a policeman and returns with the cop, the body has vanished. The police don't believe him that there was ever any body there.
2) The bad guys think the that the narrator knows something, so they keep trying to kill him. But the narrator doesn't "know what he knows"; he has no idea what they are so concerned about.
3) At the end of the book, it is revealed that the killer froze the corpse of his victim, then unthawed it many weeks later, making it look as if the victim was only recently killed.
These three plot features have been reused in countless books, and the first two have appeared in an endless number of films, as well. They are virtually clichés of the genre. But here they are, and at a very early date. Did Freeman invent them? It wouldn't surprise me, but I have not read the vast number of early detective novels it would take to find out.
Freeman's works seem to be so paradigmatic for later detective stories. The Eye of Osiris is virtually a blueprint for the later, Golden Age detective novel of the 20's and 30's. Freeman's work as a whole was an ancestor of Freeman Will Crofts and his school. And A Silent Witness contains ideas reused in countless thrillers.
A Silent Witness is not as good a novel as its predecessor (Osiris). There is far too much coincidence, and the plotting is just not as clever. It is clearly an attempt to write a second book in the style of the first, but it emerges as almost a parody of its predecessor. The best things about the book are the descriptions of both nature and London life. These are vivid, poetic, and largely fascinating. The book's three big formal innovations are noteworthy, too.
The title of the story refers to the marine creatures known as Foraminifera, whose minute, microscopic shells are found in some sand on the victim's pillow. Thorndyke's deductions here anticipate Freeman's later work in "A Wastrel's Romance", where he gave a similar theme a definitive treatment. Freeman is one of the few artists in any media to be interested in the microscopic world. Ermanno Olmi's film masterpiece The Tree of Wooden Clogs (1978) has the great scene where the little boy tells his parents about microscopic animals. Peter Parks' book The World You Never See, Underwater Life (1976) has good microscopic photography. Today there are superb atlases of electron microscope photographs that show detail that was undreamed of in Freeman's day, for example:
"The Mandarin's Pearl" is a classic impossible crime tale. The basic idea is similar to one used on an episode of the early 1960's TV series Checkmate; I saw it as a child and it made a deep impression. Checkmate was created by spy writer Eric Ambler, who also sometimes wrote and produced it.
"The Mandarin's Pearl" shows Freeman's fascination with means of seeing. Freeman includes every possible optical device in his stories; this one deals with mirrors. In other tales, Freeman includes photography, motion pictures, serial photography (in Mr. Pottermack's Oversight), microscopes, the chemistry enhanced vision of "The Moabite Cipher", and many stories about painters, sculptors and craftsmen. Freeman was also a pioneer of multimedia, including photographic illustrations to the original magazine publication of John Thorndyke's Cases, and to The Stoneware Monkey, according to Norman Donaldson's biography. Freeman's interest in molds and casting seems related to this. Freeman was especially interested in the way casting could duplicate an image, the way photography can. The climactic moment in any Freeman story about molds is when the cast is finished, and the hero sees that the cast is an exact visual duplicate of the original. Like photography, casting allows Freeman to own an image, to make a copy of something he has seen, and hold it in his hand. Similarly, Freeman's stories about painting stress its ability to realistically duplicate something the painter has seen. Freeman is mainly interested in landscape and portraiture, which perform such duplication.
Another story from John Thorndyke's Cases, "The Aluminum Dagger" (1909), is also an early impossible crime work.
"The Man in the Nailed Boots" and "The Stranger's Latchkey" constitute a dissertation about footprints, giving an in-depth look at what can be deduced from them. Both stories are of interest when discussing prints and other evidence, but both also suffer from lots of less interesting story material, such as a long flashback in "The Man in the Nailed Boots". "The Man in the Nailed Boots" shows how footprints can be faked, just as The Red Thumb Mark (1907) and "The Old Lag" (1909) deal with the faking of fingerprints, and "A Case of Premeditation" lays false trails to deceive bloodhounds. Such faking of evidence was a subject of great interest to Freeman in these works, all from a narrow range of years around 1907-1911. But they seem of only minor interest to this reader. Most of these tales skimp on actual mystery elements, unfortunately, concentrating instead on pure technical questions. Freeman will return more poetically and imaginatively to subject of faked footprints in parts of Mr. Pottermack's Oversight (1930).
"The Stranger's Latchkey" has a sinister disappearance in a wooded park-like area. Freeman will develop a richer look at such a setting in his final novel, The Jacob Street Mystery (1942). So while neither "The Man in the Nailed Boots" and "The Stranger's Latchkey" are peak achievements for Freeman, both do contain seeds of later, more developed works.
As August Derleth has pointed out, in "Mr. Ponting's Alibi", the solution of the mystery is evident to the reader almost at once. The interest of the tale is in watching Thorndyke solve the mystery. In this, the story is almost an inverted tale. "Mr. Ponting's Alibi" also resembles such early Freeman tales as "The Old Lag" and "A Message From the Deep Sea", in that it consists of an urban murder which Thorndyke tracks by means of biological clues at the crime scene. Such stories have a real appeal to the Freeman fan. Everything in "Mr. Ponting's Alibi" seems to roll out like a piece of music.
"Pandora's Box" is more of a pure puzzle plot mystery, than are many of Freeman's 1920's short stories. The tale has some mild - but good - impossible crime aspects. The story, with its dark forces at work surrounding the life of the hero, anticipates some of Freeman's final novels. As in these late books, there is also a sense of limited knowledge about the suspects in the tale, a mysteriousness that takes considerable detective skill to push back. "Rex v. Burnaby" also has elements of the impossible crime. Along with "Phyllis Annesley's Peril", these are the best of the genuine puzzle plot, fair play mystery short tales of the 1920's.
"The Contents of a Mare's Nest" is a 1920's Freeman story that seems to recapitulate in just 20 pages plots and themes from Freeman's early trilogy of novels. The story has macabre elements, but it also develops a tone of bizarre comedy, in its breathless plunge though ideas it took Freeman three novels to develop. Even this little piece includes no less than three separate crime cases. Thorndyke and his confreres have to thread an elaborate maze. It is hard to take the story seriously, but it is an entertainingly absurd summary of Freemaniana.
"The New Jersey Sphinx" is another 1920's short work with some similarity to the themes of the trilogy. It too features numerous complications, which make for pleasant storytelling.
Freeman was the inventor of the inverted detective story, in which we first see the criminal commit the crime, then watch the detective solve the case. Four of the stories collected in The Singing Bone (1912) are in the inverted form, all of them except the earliest chronologically, "The Old Lag" (1909).
In 1918 Freeman collected another batch of inverted short stories. The tales were shorter than those in The Singing Bone, and the series apparently only lasted for two stories. The first tale, "Percival Bland's Proxy" (1913), is grotesque and uninspired. Its successor, "The Missing Mortgagee" (1914) has charm. It takes place at the seaside resort of Margate, and displays the tendency of writers as they get older to set more of their works at holiday resorts. Freeman describes the seashore with his usual vivid detail. In fact, everything in the story is clearly and vividly imagined. The use of nature description in the tale links it to "A Wastrel's Romance". So does his sympathetic protagonist - as in "Wastrel", he does not commit a murder, unlike most of the central figures of Freeman's inverted stories. The safe at the end of the story looks forward to "The Puzzle Lock", one of his best 1920's tales.
"The Dead Hand" is one of Freeman's classic works. The ability of detection to illuminate the crime leads to some of Freeman's best nature imagery.
"The Dead Hand" is not a very good title. I cannot find any connection between it and the story. The Shadow of the Wolf sounds so much more Freeman like - during the pre-war period he favored titles like The Singing Bone and The Eye of Osiris - that one wonders if it were Freeman's title for the story all along, and if "The Dead Hand" were just something imposed by an editor. Mystery editors have always tried to "dumb down" poetic titles for mystery fiction, giving them more crime oriented names.
If the geometric patterns in some Freeman tales resemble Constructivism, the imagery in "The Dead Hand" recalls assemblage, also a favorite of Russian artists of the era, such as Tatlin. The body and the sail become constructed art objects, made out of a variety of materials on the boat. The whole cork disk/tube assembly is also fascinating. Freeman keeps showing logical implications of this assembly, as Thorndyke keeps making deductions from it about the mystery. It is a combination of modes: both a physical assembly of objects, and an imaginative use of logic, all in one unified package. This is a highly unusual double medium, both physical and conceptual.
The boat itself is looked at in a number of ways. First it is the subject of conversation about its maintenance. Thorndyke and Phillips look at the boat both as a collection of objects, and something that undergoes a process: that of maintaining and overhauling it. Thorndyke looks at the boat as a source of objects going into the body assemblage. And Freeman also shows how the process of overhauling can be used to shed light on the ingredients and methods of the early assemblage. It is a complex process from which one can obtain information on the earlier creation of the body-assembly.
Next, Thorndyke visits the actual boat itself, disassembled for storage in its shed for winter. What has been the subject of conversation and a mode of analysis, the boat considered as a series of objects, comes startlingly to life in literal, physical terms. The boat so disassembled becomes a collection of objects, pure raw material for an assemblage like the body-group.
Finally comes the chemical analysis. This is one of Freeman's most magical passages. It can be compared to avant-garde art as well, a combination of kinetic art and abstraction. Freeman soars here to new heights. Freeman's work here oddly recalls William Hope Hodgson's complex abstract patterns in space and time. Hodgson and Freeman did their work contemporaneously, and were presumably part of the same Zeitgeist, one which involves both Theosophy and the Abstract Art movements.
The use of the story sequence format is all to the good; it allows Freeman to incorporate more plots into the book, and tell each at its appropriate length.
In between these detective plots, Freeman also tells the life history of Mr. Pottermack and the other characters. He shows real skill in telling a complex story out of chronological sequence, and from many different points of view. The effect is of one of the avant-garde dramas of Resnais.
Freeman shows an interest in cognitive psychology throughout the book. He is especially interested in how his characters reason, and how they develop new, creative ideas. There are also remarks on how music and odors trigger memory, and how emotions affect thought processes.
Mr. Pottermack contains some of Freeman's most interesting landscape architecture. We can trace the evolution of Freeman's ideas here from their origins. Freeman's earliest Thorndyke writings, "31 New Inn" and The Red Thumb Mark, seem to contain little in the way of outdoor architecture. Next come two stories in The Singing Bone: "The Case of Oscar Brodski" contains a back yard, like that which will play a role in Mr. Pottermack, while "A Case of Premeditation" contains a path, one of the key elements in Freeman's later tales. In 1914 come the opening Hampstead Heath sequences of A Silent Witness. These are among the most memorable in Freeman's work. They introduce the new feature of a wall along the path. Walls play a major role in Mr. Pottermack, both the sea wall of the Prologue, and the wall around Mr. Pottermack's back garden. In Chapter 10, Mr. Pottermack and his girlfriend also meet again through the wall of her garden. Mr. Pottermack also contains a path through a forest, as do the opening scenes of The Jacob Street Mystery (1942).
Mr. Pottermack resembles the earlier story "Phyllis Annesley's Peril" (mid 1920's), in that both involve peering into an enclosed chamber, a room in "Phyllis", the garden in Mr. Pottermack. The apertures are perfect circles in both works, whereas the room and the garden are rectangular. In fact the garden is perfectly square. There is also a circular well in the exact center of the garden, on which is placed a circular sundial. This gives the garden a geometrical feel, being composed of basic figures such as circles and squares. The whole landscape strongly resembles the geometric artworks of Freeman's contemporaries, the Constructivists. Freeman hated modern art, and denounced it in The Jacob Street Mystery and The Stoneware Monkey. He seemed to regard it as resembling children's art, and free-form scrawls. He never seems to have experienced Constructivist works, assembled out of lines, circles and squares. But the landscape of Mr. Pottermack seems to spring from similar artistic impulses as the works of the Constructivists.
Material in the book looks forward and backward to other Freeman novels. It resembles The Penrose Mystery (1936) to come, in that the opening sections deal with a collector with a private museum in his house. An accident in the country followed by a hospital stay plays a role in both books. These events are as lucid and straightforward in When Rogues Fall Out as they are baffling and filled with mystery in The Penrose Mystery. It is as if Freeman had taken some of the events of the earlier novel, and filled them with mysterious twists. Both of these books are noteworthy among Freeman's later fiction, in having little in common with the material of his early trilogy of novels. Polton and his skill with mechanics plays a major role in both books. The country churchyard in Discovery and the barrow in Penrose play parallel roles.
Both When Rogues Fall Out and Mr. Pottermack's Oversight are very episodic in their construction. Each is a mosaic made up of many small sections, which are very diverse in their material. When Rogues Fall Out also recalls Mr. Pottermack's Oversight in its concern with optical devices and photography. Some of the optical techniques employed in the earlier novel are put to new applications here as well. One of the devices Freeman has invented here anticipates modern security surveillance equipment. So Freeman was a pioneer here, as he was in his tales advocating police laboratories. Both When Rogues Fall Out and Mr. Pottermack's Oversight are sunny, cheerful books. Despite their various crimes, they both radiate optimism and good nature. Perhaps because the reader understands all the events in these inverted stories, there is a lack of a sense of sinister, dark mysteries that oppress several later Thorndyke novels. Mr. Pottermack, despite being a criminal, is a very sympathetic character. And only a small fraction of When Rogues Fall Out is from the murderer's point of view. Instead, more often we see two other cheap but completely non-murderous crooks, each of which has their comic angle. Indeed, the British title of the book seems well-choisen: When Rogues Fall Out. One wonders whether this is Freeman's original title; Dr. Thorndyke does not actually make any key discoveries in this book, and the dignified American title Dr. Thorndyke's Discovery seems arbitrary.
Much of Mr. Pottermack's Oversight takes place outside, and is a culmination of Freeman's interest in landscape architecture. By contrast, When Rogues Fall Out is more of an indoors book, and shows the Golden Age interest in extravagant architecture. We see the victim's home, and a railway tunnel, as well as a country cottage and an auction house. There is a slight ambiguity in some of these settings between indoors and outdoors. The railway tunnel, while a massive human construction, is entered from outdoors, and the space underneath it partakes of some features of the outside. The scenes at the victim's house include the churchyard next door, also an outdoors if man made region. Both much of the house and the tunnel are underground regions; the book has a chthonic feel. The clock interior early in the book also maintains the imagery of hidden chambers and tunnels.
One can make some criticisms of this novel. It seems unlikely that Scotland Yard would have been unable to identify the killer's fingerprints. And Thorndyke's easy deductions of the real tangled state of affairs seem too easy, and set up by the author. On the plus side is Freeman's wonderful narrative flow, in which each detail is logically explained.
In some ways the book resembles a Freeman inverted tale. As in the true inverteds, the first half of the tale shows us everything through the accused's eyes, giving us a step by step account of his actions. The latter part of the book shows Thorndyke establishing what really happened, collecting a great deal of scientific evidence to support his ideas. As in the true inverteds, there are no mysteries concealed from the reader, who sees everything just as the protagonist does.
However, this novel's paradigm is quite different from the inverteds' in key ways, ways that make the form weaker, and less interesting. In true inverteds, Thorndyke does much detective work to discover the truth. Here, he does not need to do anything of the sort. The protagonist simple tells him the whole story: Thorndyke is simply given the whole case on the platter. So Thorndyke does no detective work in the true sense. His only job is to gather scientific evidence that the protagonist's far-fetched sounding story is in fact true. This is not an especially difficult or interesting task. In fact, most people would not have the slightest difficulty coming up with the evidence Thorndyke finds. Similarly, the hero of this book does not do anything to actively commit or cover up a crime. He is simply buffeted about by fate.
The other big problem with this novel is its sheer unpleasantness as a piece of storytelling. The nightmarish events that befall the hero are distressing to think about. They are certainly not fun in any sense. Our hero also feels completely isolated from other people. He is unutterably unwilling to trust them in any way. This sense of social isolation and alienation casts a shadow over many of Freeman's books, especially his later ones.
Freeman is trying to generate more light than heat: all the abuse takes place off stage, and is talked about, not depicted live. Instead, Freeman concentrates on making us understand all the aspects of the situation.
The spousal abuse is treated as a Freeman "case", one of those collections of events he studies in full detail, and investigates from every angle. Often such cases are at the center of a mystery in Freeman, and that is what happens here, as the case tuns into one of Freeman's baffling mysteries. Such cases are primary structural building blocks of Freeman's books. A case as a whole is what Thorndyke investigates. It is also what the narrator of Freeman's later novels often sets forth in detail as a witness. The fact that the wife abuse is treated as a Freeman case gives it a weight and gravity it would not otherwise possess. Freeman regarded his cases as important: they have prestige and centrality in his books. Making the wife abuse into a case is Freeman's way of stressing its significance.
The book opens with the structure familiar from Freeman's trilogy: a young doctor narrator, substituting for an established doctor and his practice, is called out at night on a sinister emergency. However, this early incident is more closely integrated in what follows than in the trilogy. It is not a separate event, marked off from the rest of the book, but merely the opening salvo. It does add to the book's feeling of mystery, but it is also something of the "wrong shape" into which the opening sections could be poured.
Angelina Frood is paradigmatic of Freeman's later mysteries in several ways. As Thorndyke himself points out, most of the information in the story is obtained from a single witness. This witness is also the narrator, as is common, for all or part of the late novels. The book concerns a disappearance, with all the horrible uncertainty this presupposes. Freeman's characters almost never find a body in the library: instead, somebody disappears, and everyone spends weeks just trying to establish the simplest facts. The police confine themselves to trying to track down the corpse. The other characters in the book are not treated as suspects, and there is little investigation of their lives or activities, as there would be in say, Van Dine school writers. Even scraps of information are hard to come by, and are clutched at tenaciously by everyone investigating the crime. Great stress is laid on photographs, drawings and visual descriptions of people. These are usually produced completely independently of any help from the police, as are fingerprints. There is a sense of darkness hovering over the book.
Except for the ultimate solution, the first half of The Mystery of Angelina Frood (1924) is much more interesting than the second. The first half sets forth a well-constructed mystery plot about an abused woman. The second half is full of red herrings. Both the writing and the plotting become arch. The reader is being treated to less of a genuine detective story here.
Helen Vardon's Confession (1922) is another bad Freeman novel suffering from offensive racial stereotypes.
Pontifex, Son and Thorndyke (1931) starts out with some entertaining mystery-adventures by a London teenager (Chapters 1, 2, 5), but it soon degenerates into another of Freeman's anti-Semitic diatribes, just like Helen Vardon's Confession and The D'Arblay Mystery.
A few of Freeman's 1920's short tales are also disfigured by anti-Semitism, notably "The Stolen Ingots", which is a tale of shipboard adventure, not unlike the opening of Pontifex, Son and Thorndyke.
I might add that I had no idea of this side of Freeman, when I first began to read him, and find these novels most discouraging. These three books are among Freeman's least reprinted, and one suspects that many people who have expressed enthusiasm for Freeman's better (and better-known) works are simply unaware of their existence, as I was when I wrote most of this Freeman essay.
Penrose displays similarities to the later Jacob Street Mystery (1942). Both novels initially focus on a small group of friends, of which Polton is a member, and to which he contributes his skill as a technician and mechanic. Both also involve a mystery of attitude. In Penrose, the narrator cannot understand the attitude of Mr. Penrose to his collection; in Jacob, the narrator is baffled by Mrs. Schiller's attitude towards her art and her personal relationships. There is a sort of inconsistency to all this, a lack of typical behavior on Penrose's and Mrs. Schiller's part. These mysteries open the story, and introduce the first mystery into the tale. The characters in both stories are distinguished by what might be called "negative mental quantities". Penrose is completely illogical and disorganized in collecting and cataloguing, whereas Mrs. Schiller adheres to modern art. These are both mental traits that Freeman found particularly offensive. It was common in Golden Age mysteries to make the victim as loathsome as possible, greedy, corrupt and vicious. It is typical of the cerebrally oriented Freeman to make his central characters' most sinister qualities to be purely mental. It also shows Freeman's ongoing interest in cognitive psychology: how people think.
Next in both works comes a mysterious disappearance. In both stories, there is a trail, but it is full of equivocal and somewhat contradictory clues. The narrators' last view of the vanished, and then their last involvement with the mystery, in both cases are made a matter of considerable mise-en-scène.
The barrow scenes of the story are relicts of a prehistoric religion in Britain, and its funerary customs. In this, the book reminds one of The Eye of Osiris. H.C. Bailey also wrote about such ancient religions. His tale "The Long Barrow" has elements in common with Freeman's novel.
Except for the introductory three chapters, I am not especially fond of The Penrose Mystery. It moves slowly, and with little new substance in the tale. In Chapters 10 and 11, Thorndyke solves a secret code, enabling him to find the name and address of a crook, and connect him up with the plot. A similar deductive use of codes and Rogues is found in many of the stories Margery Allingham collected in Mr. Campion and Others. Allingham's stories were published in magazines from 1936 to 1940, and perhaps show the influence of Freeman's novel.
The Penrose Mystery (1936), Felo De Se? (1937) and The Jacob Street Mystery (1942) all open with non-detective characters who observe the events. Typically these events include the murder or disappearance, and most of the mysterious events of the story. They, and the other characters in the opening chapters, typically have no authority to question witnesses, subpoena records, or otherwise investigate. Their observations are limited to ordinary social relationships with the other characters, and what they can deduce from them. This deduction is very important in Freeman's scheme of things. It is the only form of detective work open to the characters, and the chief way of advancing the detection and mystery plot. It is similar in many ways to the deduction that Dr. Thorndyke does in later sections of the story. Freeman often constructs his tales so that deduction is his chief mode. His early narrators have no detective status, so they can only deduce; and Dr. Thorndyke is often only called in on later stages, after the crime is over, and he can only deduce from the evidence. Freeman is especially good at deduction, and these passages are often highlights of his work
Freeman's approach in these late novels can be contrasted with the Van Dine school. In Van Dine writers, detectives show up immediately after the murder, and investigate everything at once: the movements of the witnesses and suspects, the backgrounds of people's lives, and the geography of the crime scene. It sheds an intense bright light on the whole situation, lighting up every detail of the plot. By contrast, the Freeman approach shrouds his story in darkness. The early narrators only know a small, surface aspect of the events, with everything else in darkness, and Thorndyke can only grope through the events long after they have transpired. It leaves the reader feeling they have been through a dark experience, where most of the key events and facts are shrouded in mystery. The whole mood is one of gothic gloom, of wandering around in mental darkness.
The two part construction of these late novels somewhat recalls Freeman's inverted tales, with a non-Thorndyke opening section containing the crime, and a later section introducing Thorndyke and his analysis. However, the early sections contain a mystery, one full of sinister, hidden events, whereas the inverted stories open with a straightforward account of a crime, with all details fully shown to the reader. Another contrast: in the inverted stories, we often get to follow all of Thorndyke's ideas step by step, whereas in the late novels, Freeman usually conceals Thorndyke's detective ideas from us till very late in the book.
One might point out that Freeman's narrators do not serve as "amateur detectives", the way Green's Amelia Butterworth and her successors do. They do not snoop around, they do not come up with ingenious schemes to uncover facts. They simply accept whatever data comes their way in their normal social role, and draw conclusions from it.
The early sections of these novels often show the narrator meeting some other person, a character at the center of the mystery. This character is very out going socially, a regular bon vivant: thus enabling the narrator to strike up a friendship with the character. Yet the character is also extremely secretive about his past and non-social activities: thus creating as much mystery in the story as possible. These characters, with their mysterious pasts, sinister secrets, and shadowed personal lives, recall the characters in 19th Century Sensation novels. The narrator is typically a professional person, someone whose life revolves around methodical, honest work. This person is a bit of grind, someone whose life is controlled by routine. Other than their work and eating, they have no strong desires. The mystery person is dominated by an obsession: collecting, gambling, modern art. These obsessions are sinister, in Freeman's view, and lead to anti-social behavior on the character's part. They also lead this character to have dealings with, and in practical terms support, a sinister underground, such as gambling dens, fences of stolen art objects, etc. The mysterious character also tends to be the victim of a sinister conspiracy. This criminal activity is ongoing, often lasting many years. It tends to be an organized, profit making evil.
Aside from these obsessions, there is no sign of desire anywhere in most of Freeman's late novels. No one is married, has a family, or feels romantic longings. These are all wholesome or productive aspects of desire. In Freeman's late novels, desire is purely negative: it leads to obsession, then anti-social activity, then the support of the criminal underworld of society.
Criminal activity appears to be far bigger in these novels than honesty. The honest narrator is a solitary, isolated person, while the criminal conspiracies seem to extending in all directions around the mystery character. Their very vagueness makes them seem limitless and unbounded. At the end of the books, they are given clear, fixed dimensions, but through most of the story, they seem indefinite in scope. This produces a portrait of Society in which crime is at least as prominent as honest activity. One of the most dubious theories about mystery fiction is W.H.Auden's claim that the English Golden Age novel depicted an almost wholly good society, out of which a solitary evildoer was cleansed. Freeman's late work is in contradistinction to Auden's concept. In general, many Realist writers show extensive criminal schemes. It is a subject matter favored by both Freeman and Crofts, and many of their literary descendants. It also shows up in the Bailey school, which was influenced by the Realists. The sheer magnitude of these criminal gangs, and their depiction not as solitary aberrations, but as fairly normal profit making activities of Crime, tend to contradict Auden's theory.
The social events in later Freeman often center on eating and drinking. Oddly enough, for all his characters' obsessions with food, none of these meals seem especially appealing to me. I have never drinked or smoked, and the characters' constant craving for alcohol and tobacco is foreign to me. And the characters seem positively to relish their foods' plainness. The encomiums to meals made of bread and cheese as the height of bliss also seem foreign to my taste. Nero Wolfe's feasts sound a lot more fun.
Felo De Se? contains a long finale, in which Thorndyke traces all the scientific evidence against the killer. This section comes after the revelation of the killer's identity and action. The effect here is similar to Freeman's inverted novels. Just as in the inverted tales, we already know at this point the basic steps of the crime; we are now seeing all the traces left behind by the criminal as evidence. This section has a considerable charm.
Here, however, Polton's narrative (the book's first part) is essentially a mainstream novel. Freeman gives us a full Background in a mechanic's life of the period, with Polton apprenticing to every possible kind of skilled manufacture, from clock making to lens grinding. These chapters have an air of authenticity, although I am not qualified to judge; they are certainly full of deep technical detail.
Freeman shows the tremendous difficulties of working class life in traditional Britain. Polton's life from early childhood to manhood is a record of tremendous struggle and difficulty. It is in fact hard to imagine how anybody could show such grit and determination to take all of this on. The book is a contrast to many novels on working class life, which often focus on drunken, crooked or otherwise dysfunctional slum dwellers. Polton is the exact opposite, hard working, honest, with immense technical skills, but he still winds up getting treated like human garbage by British society. Polton is probably typical of many working class Britishers of his era. I found this to be an informative but very depressing reading experience - working class experiences of the era seems overwhelmingly grim and joyless.
The second part of the novel contains one of Freeman's simplest and most easily solved mystery puzzles. All in all, I cannot recommend this book. It is well meant, and seriously crafted, but it lacks the imagination of Freeman's best work.
The Thorndyke section has a courtroom finale, during which Thorndyke reveals the truth, in a manner we now associate with Erle Stanley Gardner's Perry Mason. Courtroom scenes had played a major role in Freeman, right from the first Thorndyke novel, The Red Thumb Mark (1907).
The Thorndyke sections also bring back his leg man private eye, Mr. Snuper, who had previously appeared in Felo De Se?. Freeman loved such Dickens like names for his characters. Today we tend to think of private eyes as American. But British novels of the realist school, such as Freeman Wills Crofts, also frequently included them. Fictional British private eyes tend to be seedy, sneaky, small business men with tiny offices and lower middle class backgrounds.
The early chapters of the book show Freeman's portrait of a painter, his simple pleasant life, and his devotion to his art. These sections have a strong autobiographical feel, as if Freeman were offering an allegorical justification of his own life long devotion to the artist's life. The painter is also a skilled craftsman, as are most of Freeman's heroes, and we get a well done look at the craft side of a painter's life, from preparing a canvas to making a full painting. Freeman was himself a landscape painter, like the hero of this novel, so he is writing about events he understands from the inside.
After this, Freeman gradually gets a mystery going. The tone of the novel darkens, and it eventually turns into a grim tale. Freeman breaks new ground here by introducing a sympathetic and non stereotyped African character, a lawyer from Ghana visiting England.
The end of the mystery contains some of Freeman's most surrealistic plotting ever. Analysts could have a field day with Freeman's material. Freudians could regard the book as a revelation of Freeman's own subconscious desires, whereas sociological critics could see the book as an allegory about the relationship between Britain and its colonies in West Africa.
This book is far from perfect; there are many coincidences throughout the work, actions are sometimes far fetched and unmotivated, and much of the material is too grim for comfort. But the book is faithful to the mystery tradition in that it chooses to sneak up out of left field on the reader in the most unexpected ways possible. Freeman has chosen to end his career with a real mystery story, one that shows the power of the genre to explore the genuine mysteries of our lives.
Norman Donaldson's In Search of Dr. Thorndyke (1971) is a detailed biography and critical study of Freeman.