Friday, August 25, 2017

The Red Thumb Mark by R. Austin Freeman

Edwardian era forensic science
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a lot of scientific detectives cropped up in the wake of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s literary success with Sherlock Holmes. Judging by The Red Thumb Mark, published in 1907, British author R. Austin Freeman’s detective Dr. John Evelyn Thorndyke is one of the better fictional sleuths to emulate Holmes. This book is the first in a series of 22 novels and 40 short stories starring Thorndyke which Freeman published through 1942.

The story is narrated by Christopher Jervis, a medical doctor. In the opening chapter he runs into Dr. Thorndyke, a professional colleague and former coworker. Thorndyke has left the practice of medicine to become a medical-legal consultant, essentially an expert witness who uses scientific investigation to assist in legal cases. He invites Jervis to assist him in his latest case, and Jervis agrees. An Englishman by the name of John Hornby, who works for a company that operates mines in South Africa, is entrusted by his employer with the safekeeping of some diamonds. Being too late to deposit the precious stones in a bank, Hornby puts them in his home safe for the night. The next morning the diamonds are gone. A finger print in blood is found at the scene, which points to Hornby’s nephew Reuben Hornby as the primary suspect. Thorndyke has been hired by the defense to help exonerate the accused.

At first, Thorndyke comes across as an obvious knockoff of Holmes, or rather, Jervis is a blatant imitation of Holmes’s sidekick Dr. John Watson. Both are medical doctors and narrators. Both are mystified by the methods of the detectives they shadow, who only reveal to them the bare minimum of information, so as to keep them bewildered until the final reveal. In The Red Thumb Mark, Jervis, like Watson in The Sign of the Four, also falls in love with a client, though Freeman devotes a lot more ink to the romance than Conan Doyle ever would. Over the course of the book, Freeman does manage to satisfactorily differentiate Thorndyke from Holmes. Thorndyke’s detective work relies less on deductive reasoning (although there’s some of that) and more on scientific experimentation. He is the Edwardian forerunner of so many TV medical examiners and forensic scientists, from Quincy to CSI. Freeman gets a bit too long-winded with his scientific explanations, to the point where I was always a few pages ahead of Thorndyke’s conclusions. Nevertheless, Thorndyke is one of the best scientific sleuths I’ve encountered in detective fiction. His debut novel is far superior, for example, to the cases of Arthur B. Reeve’s Craig Kennedy, who is often unjustifiably referred to as “The American Sherlock Holmes.”

Although this is a pretty good mystery, it is not without its flaws. Regrettably, the ending is really not very satisfying at all. For one thing, it feels rather unfinished. Much is left unresolved, and we never see justice served to its completion. In addition, the resolution is telegraphed far in advance. The ending could have been far more shocking or surprising if Freeman had pinned the crime on a different suspect, but instead he takes the easy and obvious way out. There aren’t enough suspects in the first place, so really the ending is almost a foregone conclusion. To make matters worse, instead of giving us an epilogue that wraps up the loose ends of the case, Freeman chooses to focus on the romance, delivering a rather cheesy, melodramatic ending.

My four-star rating of The Red Thumb Mark is given somewhat reluctantly. Though it was disappointing in many respects, however, I did enjoy the science behind the detective work, and I definitely think I will look into more of Thorndyke’s cases.
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