The Vanishing Man (aka The Eye of Osiris) by R. Austin Freeman (1911)

John Bellingham was last seen alive at the home of cousin Edward Hurston the twenty-third of November at approximately twenty minutes past five. The discovery of a scarab, which he always wore on his watch chain, steps from the library door of his brother Godfrey’s home, calls into question the time of his disappearance—was it dropped there before or after his appearance at Hurst’s. 

Two years later, and still no sign of the missing man. His potential heirs have been left in limbo, unable to execute his will, the disposition of which hinges on some very specific conditions regarding where his body should be buried—not easy to fulfil unless his body is found and can be identified. And then the bones of a dismembered skeleton are found in a pond on Bellingham’s property. 

And then there’s our narrator, Dr. Paul Berkeley, who has recently become closely acquainted with Bellingham’s brother Godfrey and niece Ruth, who may or may not benefit from the will. It all boils down to that “the rather unsatisfactory subject of survivorship.”

Luckily, his former teacher and enthusiast of Medical Jurisprudence, Dr. John Thorndyke, takes a professional interest, and “[e]very remarkable case that had ever been recorded he appeared to have at his fingers’ ends.” 

I’ve been wanting to read Freeman for some time and found this Wildside Press edition several months ago. Then it sat on the TBR shelf as I picked out books to one side or the other. I kept saying I was going to read it but just never got around to it. Then JJ @ The Invisible Event announced he would be reviewing it as part of his “Spoiler Warning” series. Craaaap! There was nothing else to do but pull it down and read. And very glad I finally did! 

Going into this, I knew that the emphasis would be on Thorndyke as a scientific investigator, which might end in a rather dry read. Far from it! This is a well crafted puzzle, nicely-placed, eminently fair, and surprisingly full of wit. 

I found it interesting that while Thorndyke is Freeman’s principle detective, his presence is really quite minimal throughout. The focus is on Berkeley, his relationship with the Bellinghams and his desire to help them. It is Berkeley who does any of the detecting that’s called for—inspecting the bones, attending the inquest—at the request of Thorndyke. In that way Freeman puts the reader in Berkeley’s shoe’s. We are privy to the evidence, and the clues, but must come to our own deduction. 

Thorndyke smiled. “I’m sorry to be so cryptic, Berkeley, but you understand that I can’t make statements. Still, I’m trying to lead you to make certain inferences from the facts that are in your possession.” 

But what really caught me by surprise was the amount of humor that Freeman injects into the story, much of it through peripheral characters, to provide a bit of comic relief. We are introduced to the Bellingham landlady, Miss Oman, and her multiple verbal skirmishes with Berkeley; the truculent jury member Mr. Pope, with his repeated objections and probing questions at the inquest, and Miss Dobbs, the maid servant, who is quite incapable of giving a direct answer to any question. 

This is one that I did not expect to enjoy as much as I did. And I’m very glad that I read it…especially before JJ could spoil it for me!

My Judgment – 4.25/5

Prior Rulings – Bev @ My Reader’s BlockPatrick @ At the Scene of the Crime

Vintage Mystery Extravaganza –  Vintage Themes 2014 – Bingo: Read one book published under more than one title 

Calendar of Crime Reading Challenge – April #2: Author’s birth month

18 thoughts on “The Vanishing Man (aka The Eye of Osiris) by R. Austin Freeman (1911)

  1. Welcome to the RAFAS (R. Austin Freeman Appreciation Society) 😉

    This is my favourite Freeman novel tied with As a Thief in the Night, and I am glad that you liked it too. I think RAF is one of the all-time greatest crime writers and sadly one of the most underappreciated nowadays. Thorndyke is one of the few “Rivals of Sherlock Holmes” genuinely worthy of the title while being in my opinion a much more humane and warmer fellow.

    One question: How did you like the love story? It’s a controversial topic among readers of the books, with some (like me) finding it charming and moving, while others deem it mawkish and old-fashioned.

    1. Thanks Xavier! I’m looking forward to reading more Freeman to get a better sense of his writing and the Thorndyke character.

      Actually, I could have done without the love story. It started out rather charming, but then did become cloyingly sentimental. Not being a fan of Victorian/Edwardian sensationalism, I cringe it happens. But considering that it was 1911, I guess it can be somewhat expected.

  2. I was not surprised you enjoyed this one. Given your Crofts enthusiasm I felt it was a given that you would like Freeman’s style. I on the other hand was nearly driven batty trying to make it through Mr Polton Explains. It was so dull and boring that it actually hurt to read it lol The Red Thumb Mystery was marginally better. Suffice to say I am happy to experience Freeman vicariously through the reviews of others!

      1. I would suggest a course of exposure therapy for what I fear is an easily cured phobia—but it would then be a case of “physician heal thyself”—something I’m not emotionally ready. 😳

      2. Oh, man, Leo Bruce is such a variable author — Case for Three Detectives, Case for Sergeant Beef, and Case with No Conclusion are superb, and from there it’s a variety of varying returns. The frustrating thing is how great I find him at his best and how unreadable he is at his worst (which is probably Case with Ropes and Rings for me, though I think I still have one to read).

        I can totally get how it would be possible to read him and not enjoy him, but I would suggest CfSB if you’ve not tried it and are willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

    1. Kate,

      You’ve not been lucky with Freeman as neither Polton or Red Thumb rank among the best entries in the Thorndyke canon; I can definitely see why they haven’t left you asking for more. Both fans and critics agree that Freeman is found at his best in the short story format, but he also wrote some more than decent novels such as the one discussed here but also “Felo De Se”, “The D’Arblay Mystery” or “The Stoneware Monkey” among others. I strongly suggest you give him another try when you feel ready.

  3. Hooray, I’m really pleased you not only enjoyed this but also took from it the same sorts of impressions I did — though I shall, of course, save my precise thoughts for the weekend. Like you, however, I’m delighted with how much humour Freeman is able to inject into his prose, so that even when the plot isn’t exactly racing ahead there’s still plenty for the reader to anticipate and enjoy.

    Thanks for reading it ahead of time; look forward to further discussion in due course 🙂

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