John Thorndyke’s Cases by R. Austin Freeman (1909)

A collection of eight short stories in which medico-legal expert Dr. John Thorndyke analyzes the dust embedded in an old hat, sand found on a pillow, and the horn of a steer—amongst other things. And we are treated to an education on tides, ballistics, the characteristics of inks, ancient languages, and hair follicles. While the stories are only about twenty pages in length, each is filled with, what was for me, fascinating forensic detail and analysis. 

Thorndyke’s work is seen through the eyes of his friend and associate, Christopher Jervis, MD., who acts as the narrator throughout. And we are introduced to a number of other individuals who will continue to make appearances in later novels and stories, including his laboratory technician Polton, Superintendent Miller and Inspector Badger of Scotland Yard, and fellow lawyers Mr. Anstey, Mr. Marchmont, and Mr. Brodribb.

Freeman never disappoints. Reading these earliest cases of Dr. Thorndyke was great fun and very enlightening. Many thanks to Kate and her Coffee and Crime: Vintage Mystery Book Lover Box for this one. This was just the distraction I needed right now.

Prior Rulings – Nick Fuller @ The Grandest Game in the World, Mike Grost @ A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection

Vintage Mystery Extravaganza—2018 Just the Facts, Ma’am – Reference to a man in the title.

The Man with the Nailed Shoes

While visiting with his friend Dr. Christopher Jervis in a remote village by the sea, Dr. John Thorndyke observes two sets of footprints in the sand. He then proceeds to amaze his friend with several conclusions as to when they were made, and the individuals who made them. Unfortunately, at the end of this trail of prints, lies the body of a dead man. 

An exposition by Thorndyke on one of his favorite areas of interest—footprints. I’d advise you to keep careful notes as this subject will come up again later.

The Stranger’s Latchkey

When six-year-old Freddy Haldean disappears while under the care of his cousin Lucy Haldean, foul-play is assumed, and Lucy is accused. 

Thorndyke follows a trail of footprints (I told you that you should have taken notes!) in search of the boy. And we also learn just what can collect on your keys when placed in your pocket.

The Anthropologist at Large

When thieves raid the art collection of Mr. Isaac Löwe, Thorndyke takes on a case somewhat outside his usual area of expertise. 

No murders—it’s robbery, plain and simple. Here, instead of shoes, we have a hat from which Thorndyke gathers his evidence and provides some fascinating conclusions about the wearer. 

The Blue Sequin

The body of actress Edith Grant is found in a train compartment, dead from a penetrating wound to the head. Her former lover, Harold Stopford, was apparently the last person to see her—and be seen quarreling with her—alive. In his possession, a locket with the inscription “Edith, from Harold” and an umbrella with a steel spike at the end. Means, motive, opportunity, “’appearances are almost hopelessly against him.’” 

Based on the evidence, Thorndyke sees only one conclusion, and proves his case—with the assistance of the local butcher.

The Moabite Cipher

A document containing a strange cipher is recovered from the body of a man running from the police.  With a Russian Grand Duke visiting the city, London’s police believe there are anarchists abroad in the streets, and the cipher may provide important information about their activities. 

Your ROT13 decryptor won’t help you with this one. A very clever story in which the key to the cipher is misdirection.

The Mandarin’s Pearl

Fred Caverley initially believes himself lucky to have acquired a priceless Chinese pearl. Until he hears the story of its history, and the many deaths that have befallen those who possessed it before him. Each bearer has seen a mysterious Mandarin beckoning to them—before they take their own life. And then the Mandarin beckons to Caverley. 

A sort of impossible crime in which Thorndyke reveals that seeing shouldn’t always be believing. 

The Aluminum Dagger

A man is murdered, stabbed with an aluminum dagger, in a room with one entrance, the door bolted on the inside and even Thorndyke agrees that there are no other means of ingress or egress. “’Now the question is, how did the murderer get in, and how did he get out again?’” 

A truly classic impossible mystery, and devilishly clever. While Thorndyke saw the solution as soon as he looked at the body, even the most experienced of readers will find this one tricky.

A Message from the Deep Sea

The police have irrefutable evidence that Miriam Goldstein murdered Minna Adler. But a tress of hair found in a murdered girl’s hand and sand on her pillow lead Thorndyke to a different interpretation of the facts. More forensic analysis than you can shake a stick at—and a case highlighting the importance of an undisturbed crime scene in the preservation evidence.

2 thoughts on “John Thorndyke’s Cases by R. Austin Freeman (1909)

  1. Jonathan O

    This may be controversial, but in general I prefer the Thorndyke short stories to the Sherlock Holmes ones – at best they are almost as good, and the least good are much better than the weakest of the Holmes stories. (I often wonder how long the mystery in “The Norwood Builder” would have taken to solve if Thorndyke had been brought in!) While I’m not one of those who disagree with Julian Symons on principle, I just can’t understand how he could describe reading RAF’s work as “like chewing dry straw”.

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