Saturday, December 2, 2023

"Plots about poisonings and wills and survivorship"

I think I first encountered R. Austin Freeman's Dr. Thorndyke on the fiction shelves of the old Milton College Library. He became a favorite and I find the books can be re-read with pleasure. The Eye of Osiris (1911) was only the second in the series to be published. Many of the Freeman books are out of copyright and can be found in downloadable form at Project Gutenberg and elsewhere. The Eye of Osiris can also be read online there, although I liked this site more as a reading experience. About the author and the book:
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. ....

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 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....

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. .... [T]his is a first-class mystery, fully deserving its status as one of the greatest and most influential detective novels of the Edwardian era.

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