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
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