A Little More Straw to Chew


R. Austin Freeman was the subject of one of this blog’s first entries, one that pulled no punches in defending him from what I thought and still think to be an unfair characterization as a dull writer with nothing to offer to the modern reader. That post, which remains one of my most popular to this day, reflected my enthusiasm and admiration but also I think suffered from my limited knowledge of the author and his work at the time. Fifteen years later, a better mastery of the English idiom both read and written has allowed me a fuller access to Freeman’s work and as I’m currently reading and immensely enjoying The Red Thumb Mark, I thought it would be a good idea to add a few more thoughts on Dr. Thorndyke and his creator.

The Red Thumb Mark I think is one of the best debuts – well, official debuts since it wasn’t actually the first novel or Thorndyke story Freeman wrote – in the history of detective fiction. Sure it doesn’t have the utter perfection of Styles but Thorndyke’s entrée en scène is as remarkable and memorable of that of Lord Peter in Whose Body? I can’t discuss the plot as I have not yet finished reading but the one standout thing about the book in my opinion is how it subverts and ultimately repudiates the then-dominant Holmesian tradition. I have often said here and elsewhere that modern crime fiction began with the unlikely duo Chesterton-Freeman but The Red Thumb Mark makes that point even more strongly than I could ever do.

Chesterton is often credited with creating the first non-Holmesian detective with the immortal Father J. Brown and you won’t find me disputing that claim here. Still, Thorndyke was born three years earlier and while I wouldn’t call him an anti-Holmesian sleuth, he is very much a a-Holmesian one at a time when almost every fictional detective had to follow in Sherlock’s steps. It is clear thorough the book that Freeman intended it to be a dialogue with and partial rebuttal of the Canon, and the personality of John Evelyn Thorndyke is one of the key elements.

Thorndyke Portrait

From his entrée en scène in the first chapter, Thorndyke thinks, talks and behaves in ways diametrically opposite to those of his glorious predecessor, especially as pertains to human relationships. Holmes of course was never the living computer that he was and is often portrayed as being, but even the most dedicated fan won’t dispute he wasn’t the most sociable and caring of men. His friendship with Watson is genuine but never without a inch of irony and condescension and by Watson’s own admission other people interest him mostly as cases to be solved. He is also extremely conceited (though not as comically so as Poirot) and professes complete indifference and even hostility to the charms of the fairer sex.

Thorndyke is nothing like that. He is a genial, even warm, person who enjoys the company of his congeneres and treats them as equals, including his « factotum » Polton and his sidekick/chronicler Jarvis, and most crucially he cares for them. Unlike Holmes he never fails to praise Jarvis’ virtues and abilities and never ridicules his theories even when they’re patently wrong. Though a « lifelong bachelor » he is not a misogynist and is nice to the ladies, even complimenting them on their looks and brains (which are never separate in Freeman’s work) Finally, his sense of empathy is also much more developed as is demonstrated in the bleak finale of the later novel As A Thief in the Night.

This is not the only way in which Freeman distances himself from Conan Doyle’s creature. Thorndyke’s methods may look superficially similar to Holmes’s but there are marked differences too. He for one is not a lone genius working on his own according to « his methods » but a trained scientist strictly obeing and applying the rules of logic and the scientific method (« Nobody but an utter fool arrives at a conclusion without data. ») and relying on the help of assistants. He is not prone to flashy deductions either, and Chapter 10 of The Red Thumb Mark even offers a polite yet sharp critique of « the inspired detective of the romances » as Thorndyke engages in a quasi-Holmesian exercise of determining the profession of a passerby. He turns out to be right, much to Polton’s admiration, but hastens to add that he was just lucky as his « reasoning » ultimately means little from a logical viewpoint. (« All that the observed facts justify us in inferring is that this man is engaged in some mode of life that necessitates a good deal of standing; the rest is mere guess-work. ») In yo’ face, Sherlock! This passage illustrates the reasons why French crime writer Thomas Narcejac, a logician by trade, praised Thorndyke’s sound reasoning over Holmes’s more spectacular flights.


There is also a touch of social criticism in the book that has no equivalent in the Canon, which usually takes social order as granted and rarely ventures into questioning it. Thorndyke repeatedly stresses the limits of the existing legal system, especially when it comes to the rights of the accused:

« The law professes to regard the unconvicted man as innocent; but how does it treat him? You heard how the magistrate addressed our friend; outside the court he would have called him Mr. Hornby. You know what will happen to Reuben at Holloway. He will be ordered about by warders, will have a number label fastened on to his coat, he will be locked in a cell with a spy-hole in the door, through which any passing stranger may watch him; his food will be handed to him in a tin pan with a tin knife and spoon; and he will be periodically called out of his cell and driven round the exercise yard with a mob composed, for the most part, of the sweepings of the London slums. If he is acquitted, he will be turned loose without a suggestion of compensation or apology for these indignities or the losses he may have sustained through his detention. »

Freeman later makes his point even clearer in a later scene in which Jarvis and his love interest visit a prison straight out of a Dickens novel. Though a political conservative like Doyle, Freeman was obviously not the same kind of conservative.

I expect the rest of the book to be also full of interesting things to share with you when I’m finished. As it happens I hope this post to have bolstered the case I made a decade and a half ago. Reading Freeman is definitely not like chewing dry straw.

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