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