Saturday, 6 February 2021

The Red Thumb Mark

AuthorR. Austin Freeman
First Published1907
Ebook Publisher: Various
Ebook Date: Various

When it comes to forensic investigation there is one literary character that stands head and shoulders above all others. The undisputed original template for television shows such as Bones, Waking the Dead and Crime Scene Investigation, with all of its spin-offs, CSI: Miami/Vegas/etc. 

The character is Dr. John Thorndyke, created by English writer Richard Austin Freeman in the early years of the twentieth century.

Thorndyke made his debut in the 1907 story The Red Thumb Mark. In it, he is ably assisted by his university friend Dr. Christopher Jervis, and his 'man' - the highly talented laboratory assistant Polton. The medico-legal expert resides at 5A King's Bench Walk located in the Inner Temple, one of the four Inns of Court in the City of London, England. The area has been well-known for many years as the center of London legal offices.

Freeman was open about Thorndyke being influenced by Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes character - but added that he wanted to infuse him with his own medical and legal experiences to embellish his consulting detective with an air of the (then) modern forensic methods, in order to separate him from the crowd.

In his own words from later introductions of his collected stories, Freeman says,
...I asked myself whether it might not be possible to devise a detective story of a slightly different kind - one based on the science of Medical Jurisprudence, in which, by the sacrifice of a certain amount of dramatic effect, one could keep entirely within the facts of real life, with nothing fictitious excepting the persons and the events.
Richard Austin Freeman lived between 1862 and 1943. Born in Britain, he went to medical school at the Middlesex Hospital where he qualified at the age of 24. After marriage, he and his family moved to Ghana, where he was a surgeon for the Colonial Services. Following many travels around the African continent he became ill and was sent home in 1891.

After a stint back in Middlesex and general practice, Freeman served as a medical office in Holloway Prison that was followed by an unformtunate bout of bad health. The experience resulted in giving up the medical profession and taking up writing. His stories were already being published as serials and his first novel The Golden Pool was published in 1905. Shortly after writing The Red Thumb Mark Freeman is credited as devising the inverted detective story, where a criminal's identity is known by the reader from the outset, and it is up to the detective or hero to reveal them as the purpetrator. 

The Red Thumb Mark starts out as Dr Christopher Jervis is strolling through Temple, and spots his old friend John Thorndyke wearing the traditional attire of a barrister in England. They chat for a while and Jervis accepts an invitation to tea at Thorndyke's 5A King's Bench Walk residence. Whilst there the meal is interupted by the arrival of Rueben Hornby and his lawyer Mr Lawley. Hornby has been accused by the police force of the robbery of diamonds from the safe of his uncle's office. Hornby and his brother have been working for their uncle since the death of their father - the uncle has become more of a father figure to the two, and it is expected that the pair of them would eventually take over the business upon his retirement.

Hornby was the last person to see the diamonds as he handed them to his uncle who then placed them into the safe, and it was he who was the last person to be seen in the office after the safe was locked. However, the most damning evidence against him is a scrap of paper, found in the safe when it was opened the morning after, on which his uncle had noted details of the package. This scrap of note paper is smudged with a bloody thumb print. The police forensic specialists have identified the print as belonging to Rueben Hornby. 

Faced with this damning fact, Hornby claims his innocence and appeals to Thorndyke to act in his defence and use his scientific methods to support his case. Thorndyke accepts the challenge, and engages his friend Jervis to assist him and his lab-technician, Polton, in the case.

This novel is very much of its time, but simultaneously feels ahead of its time (despite it now being over 100 years old). Thorndyke's science is cutting edge, and is a natural evolution of the approach inherited from predecessors such as Sherlock Holmes. The detective in this case is very reluctant to explain his methods, and as a reader you are told the story from the point of view of Jervis, who himself marvels at the methods his friend has now accquired and become reknown for. One particular highlight of note though, is a sequence where you could easily swap Jervis and Thorndyke for Watson and Holmes. A mysterious package arrives for Thorndyke and Jervis notes that he studies the package intently - asked why he does this, Thorndyke enters into an explanation that could have easily been written for Holmes.

The book is not without its faults. Jervis enters into the inevitable romance with another character. This  allows Freeman to explore an aspect of the times that is interesting in terms of the literature of the early twentieth century - but which reads rather twee and innocent to a modern reader. He also doesn't do anything positive for the image of women in 1907.

Just as The Red Thumb Mark is beginning to perhaps lose its way, Freeman brings the plot to its climax with an excellent court-room drama sequence. The language used by the presiding members of the court is fabulous, full of comedy and pathos, but all of it is leading up to Thorndykes appearance as the scientific expert who runs rings around the rest of the legal profession, including the perplexed police investigators.

The Red Thumb Mark can be found in many different variations of eBook. There are numerous publishers ussing different publications now that the book is over 100 years old in the United Kingdom. I have had a paperback version since the mid-1990's when I discovered Freeman and Thiorndyke in the central London mystery bookshop called 'Murder One' on the Charing Cross Road (a road famous for its number of specialist and second-hand bookshops). Alas the bookshop, which was a goldmine of Holmes pastiches and Pulps no longer exists, but Thorndyke continued to be published many times of the years. Currently it is possible to buy the complete works in eBook for very little - but my own dream of owning all of the Thorndyke series was fulfilled when MX Publishing Kickstarted the start of a superb complete run in 2018. The cover of the first volume can be seen above.

If you have an interest in exploring alternatives to Sherlock Holmes, then I suggest giving Dr John Thorndyke a shot. He has been admired for a long time and still worth the effort.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

He was also a model for Harriet Vane’s detective story protagonist in several Peter Wimsey stories.