The peculiar construction of the first four stories in the present collection will probably strike both reader and critic and seem to call for some explanation, which I accordingly proceed to supply.
In the conventional “detective story” the interest is made to focus on the question, “Who did it?” The identity of the criminal is a secret that is jealously guarded up to the very end of the book, and its disclosure forms the final climax.
This I have always regarded as somewhat of a mistake.
And so was born the inverted mystery story, in which the reader knows whodunit before the detective, and the pleasure comes from watching him catch up with you. R. Austin Freeman is generally credited with originating this form of the detective story, which was later polished by Roy Vickers in his stories featuring The Department of Dead Ends, and probably reached its peak with everybody’s favourite TV detective Columbo.
Freeman’s investigator is Dr Thorndyke, a medico-legal expert who uses the techniques of forensic science to unmask killers.
… a tall, imposing man […] A formidable antagonist he looked, with his keen, thoughtful face, so resolute and calm.
Thorndyke goes nowhere without his gimmick, a little green box containing his portable laboratory:
It was a triumph of condensation, for, small as it was—only a foot square by four inches deep—it contained a fairly complete outfit for a preliminary investigation […] rows of little re-agent bottles, tiny test-tubes, diminutive spirit-lamp, dwarf microscope and assorted instruments on the same Lilliputian scale.
Thorndyke first appeared in 1907’s The Red Thumb Mark, but Freeman waited 5 years before publishing his first experimental inverted stories. There are four such stories (plus one more conventional tale) in The Singing Bone, of which the best is probably the atmospheric ‘The Case of Oscar Brodski’, which depicts a career criminal finally losing his head in the face of overwhelming temptation.
In the first half of each story, Freeman describes the crime from the point of view of the murderer. The murders all occur for sound reasons – greed, revenge or concealment – and the methods employed are extremely plausible (although the attempt by the killer in the second story to pin the murder on somebody else by leading a pack of bloodhounds astray is a little arcane). They don’t have the flavour of crimes created just to be solved. Freeman is strong at portraying the grubby horror of the act of murder:
Slowly and without a sound Silas crept forward into the room, step by step, with catlike stealthiness, until he stood close behind Brodski’s chair—so close that he had to turn his head that his breath might not stir the hair upon the other man’s head. So, for half-a-minute, he stood motionless, like a symbolical statue of Murder, glaring down with horrible, glittering eyes upon the unconscious diamond merchant, while his quick breath passed without a sound through his open mouth and his fingers writhed slowly like the tentacles of a giant hydra.
The second half of each story is narrated by one Christopher Jervis, MD, Thorndyke’s assistant. We follow Thorndyke’s investigations step by step, as he wields his little green box to devastating effect. Microscopic shards of glass are analysed. Oatmeal crumbs are collected and examined. Wounds are examined:
‘Now, you know, Jervis, there are no exceptions to the law of gravity. If the blood ran down the face towards the chin, the face must have been upright at the time; and if the blood trickled from the front to the back of the head, the head must have been horizontal and face upwards. But the man when he was seen by the engine-driver, was lying face downwards. The only possible inference is that when the wound was inflicted, the man was in the upright position– standing or sitting; and that subsequently, and while he was still alive, he lay on his back for a sufficiently long time for the blood to have trickled to the back of his head.’
One striking thing is that the murderer often gets away with it. The solving of the mystery is reward enough for Thorndyke.
… he deserved to escape. It was clearly a case of blackmail, and to kill a blackmailer—when you have no other defence against him—is hardly murder…
The critic Julian Symons selected The Singing Bone as one of his 100 greatest crime and mystery books. Despite this, in Bloody Murder, Symons is rather dismissive of Freeman’s prose: ‘like chewing dry straw’ is one barb. Whilst admitting that Freeman had great accuracy and that The Singing Bone broke new ground, he says:
‘With Freeman we confront for the first time the crime writer who produced work of no other kind, and whose talents as a writer were negligible.’
However, I found these stories very readable – I honestly can’t see what Symons was getting at. Whole-heartedly recommended.
At the Scene of the Crime: Dr. Thorndyke is a marvellous creation. Freeman doesn’t concern himself with giving his detective as many eccentricities as possible. Thorndyke’s hobbies don’t include knitting and he doesn’t have a fixation for his moustache. He is simply an intelligent and observant man who knows how to use his remarkable mind to make a solid deduction. His logic is simply perfect, and he always allows for the possibility that he may have miscalculated somewhere. And the way he goes about solving his crimes is just fascinating to watch.
Final destination: Staying on my Kindle