When the ink had been rolled out to the requisite thinness, he took Reuben’s hand and pressed the thumb lightly but firmly on to the inked plate; then, transferring the thumb to one of the cards, which he directed me to hold steady on the table, he repeated the pressure, when there was left on the card a beautifully sharp and clear impression of the bulb of the thumb, the tiny papillary ridges being shown with microscopic distinctness, and even the mouths of the sweat glands, which appeared as rows of little white dots on the black lines of the ridges. This manoeuvre was repeated a dozen times on two of the cards, each of which thus received six impressions.
The Red Thumb Mark was the first appearance of Dr John Thorndyke in print. Thorndyke is a medico-legal jurist who uses the latest scientific techniques to right wrongs and keep Scotland Yard on their toes, evidentially speaking. Later in his literary career, Thorndyke began appearing in ‘inverted mysteries’ in The Singing Bone, but to begin with his mysteries were the right way round.
In this, his first published case, a young man named Reuben Hornby stands accused of stealing some uncut diamonds from his uncle’s office safe. Reuben, who denies any guilt, is a previously blameless character with no financial concerns. However, his thumb mark – printed in blood – has been found inside the safe. Thorndyke uses all the latest (in 1907) techniques to defend his client.
I have been reading through the reviews by my learned colleagues (which will appear on the #1907book round-up page shortly), and find an array of opinions on The Red Thumb Mark, all of which could be summed up in one word: bad.
I’m slightly perplexed by this, as I really warmed to Thorndyke and his sidekicks.
The narrator of the story is Dr Jervis, an old class-mate of Thorndyke’s who, as the book begins, has fallen on hard times. A chance meeting outside the Old Bailey leads to Thorndyke employing Jervis as an assistant. Jervis is very much the Watson figure, who is quite a bit slower than the reader. The scene in which he realises that the fact someone connected with the case has borrowed a Blickensderfer typewriter from a writer-friend, when only yesterday Thorndyke received a suspicious parcel labeled by a Blickensderfer ‘literary’ model, is excruciating.
“I didn’t know [redacted] went in for printing,” I said. “Has he a regular printing press?”
“It isn’t a printing press exactly,” replied Mrs. Hornby; “it is a small thing with a lot of round keys that you press down—Dickensblerfer, I think it is called—ridiculous name, isn’t it? [redacted] bought it from one of his literary friends about a week ago; but he is getting quite clever with it already, though he does make a few mistakes still, as you can see.”
She halted again, and began to search for the opening of a pocket which was hidden away in some occult recess of her clothing, all unconscious of the effect that her explanation had produced on me. For, instantly, as she spoke, there flashed into my mind one of the points that Thorndyke had given me for the identification of the mysterious X. “He has probably purchased, quite recently, a second-hand Blickensderfer, fitted with a literary typewheel.” The coincidence was striking and even startling, though a moment’s reflection convinced me that it was nothing more than a coincidence; for there must be hundreds of second-hand “Blicks” on the market, and, as to Walter Hornby, he certainly could have no quarrel with Thorndyke, but would rather be interested in his preservation on Reuben’s account.
Still, he is a nice chap, and a rather sweet subplot deals with him trying not to fall for Juliet Gibson, a lady-friend of Reuben’s.
Meanwhile, of course, Thorndyke confounds the Yard by overturning their lazy detective work.
“But the thumb-mark, my dear fellow!” I exclaimed. “How can you possibly get over that?”
“I don’t know that I can,” answered Thorndyke calmly; “but I see you are taking the same view as the police, who persist in regarding a finger-print as a kind of magical touchstone, a final proof, beyond which inquiry need not go. Now, this is an entire mistake. A finger-print is merely a fact—a very important and significant one, I admit—but still a fact, which, like any other fact, requires to be weighed and measured with reference to its evidential value.”
If you have never read another mystery, you may not spot Thorndyke’s Mysterious X almost immediately. If it isn’t Thorndyke’s client, it must be the only other person who stands to gain, the one who is suspiciously hovering just in the background all the time. And it’s pretty clear that a ‘thumbograph’, a 1907 piece of entertainment technology which allowed you to fingerprint your friends, is somehow implicated.
It is all, I admit, a little bit old bufferish, and very much of its time, but I for one enjoyed The Red Thumb Mark.
The Red Thumb Mark
R. Austin Freeman
First published in the UK by Collingwood Bros, 1907
This edition: Manybooks
I’m rather fond of Thorndyke, and read everything I could find a few years ago: as far as I remember you don’t always get all the facts, but Freeman tries to play fair. There are all those lovely walks across London (someone really ought to make a walking-tour book out of them; they’re described clearly enough). And there’s that splendid moment when our heroes are shadowing someone who gets aboard, oh no, a bus, but then… of course! The Electric Railway!
Well, someone had to like it, or he wouldn’t have written so many books… As you implied, it wasn’t to my tastes at all
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