Thursday, March 3, 2011

R. Austin Freeman

That which is referred to as the "Golden Age" of detective fiction is, roughly, the period between the World Wars, and the writers who continue to be most celebrated from that era are all women: Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh. At The American Culture Curt Evans writes about "The British Golden Age of Detection’s Deposed Crime Kings" in two parts (Part 1 and Part 2) regretting the neglect of some very good male crime writers from that period. One of those is R. Austin Freeman, also one of my favorites about whom I've posted before. Many of Freeman's stories are "inverted" detective tales, where you are told the story of the crime from the perpetrator's point of view including, of course, all the steps taken to conceal what he has done, and then observe the detective's inexorable discovery of the guilty. Evans says that Freeman was one of T.S. Eliot's favorite detective novelists, better than Christie. Evans on Freeman:
Although Freeman’s first detective novel, The Red Thumb Mark, appeared in 1907, well before the beginning of the Golden Age, Freeman, a contemporary of Arthur Conan Doyle, continued writing mystery fiction until the year before his death in 1943. Between 1922 and 1938, Freeman published fifteen detective novels and three collections of detective short stories, all but one detailing exploits of his then-famous detective (and the greatest rival of Sherlock Holmes), medical jurist Dr. John Thorndyke. Two more Thorndyke novels appeared in 1940 and 1942, outside the proper span of the Golden Age.

Freeman’s Thorndyke tales brought science and forensic medicine into the detective fiction genre in a masterful way. Compared to Thorndyke, Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is far less credible on scientific matters. P. D. James claims that the Golden Age detective novelists “had very little knowledge and even less apparent interest in forensic medicine”—a far too sweeping statement, evidently based mostly on her assessments of the Crime Queens, which does a grave injustice to Freeman, perhaps the single most important progenitor of the use of forensic medicine in detective fiction. ....

Though some of Freeman’s best works, such as The Eye of Osiris (1911) and the short-story collections John Thorndyke’s Cases (1909) and The Singing Bone (1912), were published before the Golden Age began, Freeman produced many superb Golden Age works, including the three later short story collections Dr. Thorndyke’s Casebook (1923), The Puzzle Lock (1925), and The Magic Casket (1927) and novels such as The Cat’s Eye (1923), The Shadow of the Wolf (1925), As a Thief in the Night (1928), Mr. Pottermack's Oversight (1930), The Penrose Mystery (1936), and The Stoneware Monkey (1938).

Freeman’s story collection The Singing Bone has been credited with creating the inverted mystery, and the later novels Wolf and Oversight are fine examples of that form. [more]
I don't possess all of those books, but of those I do own Mr. Pottermack's Oversight is a favorite, as are a couple he doesn't mention, A Silent Witness (1929) and For the Defense: Dr. Thorndyke [1934].

Curt Evans, "The British Golden Age of Detection’s Deposed Crime Kings (Part 2 of 2)", The American Culture

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