The Red Thumb Mark (1907) by R. Austin Freeman

Freeman is not an author new to me, in fact if I ever wrote a black list for authors I want to avoid at all costs, he would probably feature on it. Why you ask? Well the first novel by Freeman I read was Mr Polton Explains (1940), a most painfully boring book where we suffer reading someone’s mind numbing life story in order to see how they recognise someone in a case Doctor Thorndyke is investigating. Consequently I never thought I would read another book by Freeman and I haven’t until today. The year chosen for Rich at Past Offences’ Crimes of the Century challenge is 1907 this month, the earliest one chosen to date and my options were a little limited. So I decided to give Freeman another go, especially since The Red Thumb Mark (1907) is one of his more well-known novels and over the course of this year I have heard a number of positive comments about him.


In this story Doctor Thorndyke, aided by an old university acquaintance, Doctor Jervis and his trusted laboratory assistant Polton, is tasked with the challenge of proving Reuben Hornby innocent of having stolen a number of expensive diamonds from his uncle’s business’s safe. The safe was not tampered with and the only people who could have accessed the safe key at all are Reuben, his uncle John and his cousin Walter. Yet what damns Reuben is that inside the safe there are drops of blood and a memo note with a bloodied thumb print which appears to be his own; a comparison made using a record of Reuben’s thumb print in his aunt’s Thumbograph (more on that later). Prior to Reuben’s trial the reader is frequently kept in the dark as to what Thorndyke is doing and instead has to be contented with the narrator, Jervis’ actions and it is through Jervis that we find out more about Reuben’s family. Though it seems that in the case of one family member, Juliet Gibson, his views are inevitably romantically biased. Eventually the day of the trial emerges and it remains to be seen whether Thorndyke can come up with the goods.

Overall Thoughts

So the thumbograph. This was a device being sold to the public whereby they could record their family and friends’ thumb prints, an activity so thrilling it was considered as a form of after dinner entertainment. As the picture below shows  the person inks their finger  before printing it on the right hand side. On the left hand side they autograph the prints.


From a social history point of view I found this quite an interesting object and it also gives Freeman a way of bringing Mrs Hornby, Reuben’s aunt into the story, who was quite a comical character and her moment in the witness stand was certainly entertaining.

I think two main things made this a poorer read. The first of these is the amount of scientific detail given. I can see how it is important but unfortunately Freeman can’t really write it in an interesting manner, or at least not consistently. This is particularly problematic at the trial part of the narrative. Alternatively there are moments when it is quite interesting to hear about the science behind the defence’s case at the trial, simply because before this point the reader has been withheld from Thorndyke’s thoughts and to some extent his actions. It is not surprising that one character likens him to a famous magician duo, Maskelyne and Cooke. His reticence does become very annoying and a combination of these two problems significantly affects the pace of the novel and makes it less engaging to read. It perhaps becomes a more pertinent problem in the case of this story as the cast of suspects is very small, so therefore you can hedge your bets quite easily and guess the culprit, so you’re just waiting for Thorndyke to prove their guilt.

Thorndyke is quite reticent about himself as well as with the case, though there are moments when his inner self comes to light. In particular it could be said that he is quite cynical and sceptical of established structures such as the police, the law and lawyers. I did enjoy his critique on finger prints and their value as evidence, suggesting they are not infallible proof nor a ‘magical touchstone… beyond which inquiry need not go.’ Instead he sees a finger print ‘merely [as] a fact – a very important and significant one, I admit – but still a fact, which like any fact, requires to be weighed and measured with reference to its evidential value.’

Jervis’ narration is okay on the whole, though he does slip into a more melodramatic guise when with Juliet. He does suffer from Dr Watson-like hero worship, considering Thorndyke the most handsome man he has ever seen, but this doesn’t pervade the narrative too much. Women in the story as a rule are portrayed as the gentler and more delicate sex, though I think the way Freeman conveys this is quite amusing to the modern reader. For instance when Juliet and Mrs Hornby are said to be arriving at Thorndyke’s home, Polton is anxious that the laboratory should be tidied and Jervis says Polton ‘evidently appreciated the difference between the masculine and feminine view as to the proper appearance of working premises.’ Another instance which intrigued me is when Mrs Hornby asks Jervis if he thinks Thorndyke is ‘a dear.’ At first it could be thought this is an example poking fun at supposed “feminine language” as Jervis replies that ‘I have never considered my colleague in the capacity of a dear, but I have a very high opinion of him in every respect.’ Yet Juliet’s response undermines this assumption as the feminine language is indicated to be superior: ‘I think the feminine expression is more epigrammatic and comprehensive.’ Initially Juliet seems like she will be a less typical female love interest, as she calls Thorndyke out on his biased assumption if she says Reuben is innocent it must be because she is in love with him. However, this is but a brief moment.

So will I be taking Freeman off my mental blacklist? On the one hand compared to my last Freeman novel which got 1/5 as its rating, 3.5/5 does seem to be a healthy increase. However, Freeman relishes marrying scientific methods and knowledge with detection and unfortunately this entails long scientific explanations, which to be honest really don’t interest me and mean very little. Consequently I think he is likely to stay on the list, especially considering how many authors there are out there that I do enjoy reading. As my friend and fellow blogger JJ says, life is too short to read bad books.

Readers’ Homework Task

Slip subtly into conversation the word rhodomontade, which apparently means vain and empty boasting.

Rating: 3.5/5

See also:

Bernadette at Reactions to Reading has also reviewed this book here.


  1. I think you’ve been a bit generous with 3.5…I’d have gone for around 2.5 I think. But then I’m not as much of a connoisseur of classic crime as you are.

    Does Jervis not appear in the later novels? I figured he was being set up here to be the permanent sycophant in residence

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh and I like your homework task. I had to look that word up when I read it, then not that much later heard another news story featuring the insufferable D. Trump and thought “how appropriate, a new word to describe him”

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for the review, which has encouraged me to give this one a miss. I’ve just finished one of JJ Connington’s novels, which depended on part on scientific knowledge. But thankfully there were no extended expositions of scientific principles.

    I’m excited about your next review, as the synopsis for ‘Magpie Murders’ sounds very interesting…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Which Connington were you reading? I’ve only tried him the once. I think TRTM would have been a better story if it was more upfront with information, as that would have made it more of a “puzzle” mystery.


      • I think the title was ‘The Eye of the Musuem’. Forgot to add that there were quite a few pages devoted to a character explaining the detection forgery in some detail. My eyes glazed over as I sped through the exposition.

        I quite liked Superintendent Ross, who comes across as a nicer person than Clinton Driffield. But in terms of the puzzle, this wasn’t superior to ‘Tragedy at Ravensthorpe’. Also, some information came through to the reader quite late in the story, which surprised me given Connington’s reputation for fair-play.

        Then again, I like saving the best for the last, and I chose to read ‘Eye of the Musuem’ before ‘Nine Solutions’, ‘Two Tickets’, ‘Boat House Riddle’, ‘Sweepstake’, ‘Tau Cross’, ‘Castleford Conundrum’ – all of which received better reviews. (I went on a Connington-purchase-spree on my Kindle recently…)

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m not a fan of Freeman either, but I thought the writing style in “The Eye Of Osiris” was surprisingly enjoyable. Too bad that the plot was so predictable.

    Looking forward to your review of “The Magpie Murders” as well, although seeing as it is described as a “deliciously dark take on the cosy crime novel”, I hope this doesn’t mean it will be full of child abuse, like seemingly 95 per cent of modern mysteries.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. A very comprehensive review — I’ve never read ‘The Red Thumb Mark,’ although it has certainly been mentioned in the GAD Yahoo group over the years. I have mildly enjoyed the couple R. Austin Freeman stories that I’ve encountered, but they do have the disadvantage you mention of describing the science of early forensics in laborious detail. (Which, to be fair, was Freeman’s niche and a new exploration in turn-of-the-century thrillers.)

    It’s also amusing to see the same ingredients of romance and melodrama here that haunts/plagues most crime stories of this time. I’m reading ‘The Avenger’ by E. Phillips Oppenheim for the 1907 challenge, and he actually does an admirable job keeping the relationship between male protagonist and ingenue interesting and integrated within the plot. Cheers — Jason H

    Liked by 1 person

      • The Avenger/The Conspirators is my first Oppenheim book, actually, so unfortunately I can’t give you a knowledgeable recommendation about his output. (I know he was prolific, and he appears to be a formula writer in the Edwardian thriller genre.) What I’m enjoying about this current book is his skill with making that formula work: we start out in medias res, the love relationship feels organic and integral, the reader is uncertain of some characters’ alliances and motives, creating engagement because one wants to know if the shadowy figures are on the side of hero or villain. The downside is that it can’t quite escape its dusty melodramatic structure fully — it would be another form of literature if it did — and the situations and writing still feel a bit stilted as a result. But compared with other works from the first decade of the 1900s, this Oppenheim title feels really modern and easy to access.

        If you do choose to look into this writer, I will be very interested in reading your views!

        Liked by 1 person

        • You certainly give a persuasive endorsement. I think I had mentally written him off as just a spy/thriller writer but from what you’ve said there seems to be more to his work. I’ll have to see what second hand copies of his works are available.


  6. Freeman did get better as time went on – I agree that TRTM is incredibly tedious but later books were better crafted. For example, in ‘Mr Pottermack’s Oversight’ we are aware of the perpetrator from the beginning, but Freeman’s rather pedantic description of the minutiae of evidence that Thorndyke is collecting adds to the tension leading up to the discovery of the perpetrator (whose identity the reader has known all along).
    Oppenheim was like Edgar Wallace in that he was incredibly prolific (over 100 novels and 37 collections of short stories according to Wikipedia). Like Wallace, he also spanned several genres, although his work is generally lighter in tone. ‘The Great Impersonation’ is a well-known one and was made into a film. I read ‘The Cinema Murder’ not so long ago and it’s not a bad one, although the plot twist is fairly obvious and I’m still trying to work out where the title came from – perhaps I missed it! Better perhaps to start out with some of his short stories – try the later collections, such as ‘Nicholas Goade, Detective’ (1927) or ‘General Besserley’s Puzzle Box’ (1935), both available on line from Roy Glashan’s Library.
    Finally (sorry for the long post) the Thumbograph reminded me a little of the collection of fingerprints held by the victim in Patricia Wentworth’s novel ‘The Fingerprint’ (1959). Hard to imagine that these collections were ever popular but I guess back then you had to make your own amusements…

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks for your recommendations in regards to Oppenheim. Definitely think he is an author I would like to try. I don’t tend to read things online or on my computer, but hopefully some print copies of his work will be available.


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