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John Thorndyke's Cases by R. Austin Freeman

John Thorndyke's Cases (1909)

by R. Austin Freeman

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After making his debut in R. Austin Freeman's 1907 novel The Red Thumb Mark, Dr John Thorndyke, "medical jurist", returned in this collection of short stories published in 1909. Each story is very much focused upon a particular kind of medical / scientific problem, and the surrounding tale exists chiefly for the process of investigation and interpretation to be explained. Although a number of the scenarios are highly improbable, the reader is asked to accept Freeman's word, as conveyed via a preface, that he personally "tried out" the mechanism of each puzzle and its solution before writing the story that contains it (presumably without an accompanying body count).

The eight stories in John Thorndyke's Cases are narrated by Dr Christopher Jervis, Thorndyke's friend and assistant, and do not occur in any particular order, nor in any strict chronology with respect to the events of The Red Thumb Mark (Jervis goes from almost-flirting with a female friend to mentioning his wife to sharing Thorndyke's rooms). We follow Thorndyke as he proves cause of death, extrapolates from footprints, reveals secret writing, examines microscopic objects, does racial profiling from hair samples, exposes faked evidence, solves a "locked room" murder and rescues his clients from police shortsightedness, deliberate framing and/or plain bad timing.

Apart from the investigations themselves, these stories are interesting in a "then and now" sense, as we gain insight into the workings of the criminal justice system some hundred years ago. Sometimes we are in agreement with Thorndyke, as when he argues for strict crime scene preservation; and on other occasions, such as when he insists that there cannot be a murder charge without a body, we see how the law has moved on. There are also moments when Thorndyke himself violates legal protocol, either to save time in a desperate situation or in the name of "common sense", without repercussion. Some gruesome scenarios and an unnerving case dealing with an apparent supernatural curse are balanced by quite a number of humorous touches in the dialogue - although the funniest moment sees Freeman winking at his main inspiration / competitor. John Thorndyke's methods are supposed to be a rational alternative to the intuitive style of detection...but that's not to say the good doctor can't "do a Sherlock" if sufficiently provoked:

"We only have his footprints," Thorndyke answered, "and this fluff which I raked out of the barrel of his latchkey, and have just been examing. From these data I conclude that he is a rather short and thin man, and somewhat lame. He walks with the aid of a thick stick, which has a knob, not a crook, at the top, and which he carries in his left hand. I think that his left leg has been amputated above the knee, and that he wears an artificial limb. He is elderly, he shaves his beard, has white hair dyed a greyish black, is partly bald, and probably combs a wisp of hair over the bald place; he takes snuff, and carries a leaden comb in his pocket."
1 vote lyzard | Aug 26, 2011 |
This book is, as the title indicates, a collection of Thorndyke’s cases. Freeman seems to be “trying out” different approaches to writing detective fiction and so the cases vary from almost painfully complex to straightforward. The degree to which Jervis, and the reader, are included in the process of detection also varies from story to story. It would be tempting to presume that the more complex the method of crime the more the reader would be excluded from the ability to at least share in some of Thorndyke’s suspicions however this proves not to be the case. Although not all the stories are equally successful at mixing ingenuity and charm with serious detection this reader was left with the urge to immediate pick up the next Thorndyke book and start reading it. ( )
  mmyoung | Dec 29, 2010 |
Freeman was a pioneer in writing forensic-detective-fiction. ( )
  ostrom | Nov 29, 2007 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0755103653, Paperback)

In this intriguing collection of detective stories, Richard Austin Freeman presents yet another batch of entertaining, clever mysteries to tempt and tease the curious mind. From robbery and murder to mayhem, Freeman takes the reader through a myriad of beguiling scenarios and asks whodunit, with the aid of the erudite Dr Thorndyke.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 17:59:18 -0400)

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