One good thing about Crimes of the Century travelling as far back as 1907 this month is that quite a few books are out of copyright and easily available for free. As it was the first of his many novels to feature medico-legal expert Dr. John Thorndyke I opted for a reasonably well digitised version of Richard Austin Freeman’s THE RED THUMB MARK (some free eBooks are so poorly formatted and have so many typographical glitches they are basically unreadable).
I haven’t read a lot from this era and so can’t really comment on whether or not THE RED THUMB MARK is indicative of contemporary crime fiction but it certainly fits my personal notion of what older crime novels offer. The primary element is the story’s plot – there’s not much room for character development in around 200 pages pages – and it hinges on minutiae and evidentiary details that only a lone genius can spot. In this instance the genius is a doctor turned lawyer who has at his disposal a compliant and technically competent manservant-come-laboratory operator and an old medical school chum who is currently unemployed and fulfils the Watson role to Thorndyke’s Holmes-like one. I know the comparison is probably unfair but like Watson Christopher Jervis is a doctor and he acts as the narrator of the story and dutifully awed recorder of the brilliance that is Dr. Thorndyke. Jervis is not only concerned with the intellectual superiority of his friend but his remarkable outwardly appearance too, as evidenced by this passage which appears towards the end of the novel when Thorndyke takes to the stand in Court for the first time
…I had never before appreciated what now impressed me most: that Thorndyke was actually the handsomest man I had ever seen. He was dressed simply, his appearance unaided by the flowing gown or awe-inspiring wig, and yet his presence dominated the court. Even the judge, despite his scarlet robe and trappings of office, looked commonplace by comparison, while the jurymen, who turned to look at him, seemed like beings of an inferior order.
He goes on for a another page or so in the same vein. This kind of hero worship is pretty common in the classic whodunnit which is one of the reasons it will never be my favourite kind of crime fiction.
The story here is remarkable mainly because it is a mystery that doesn’t involve a murder, though this was probably more common in 1907 than it is today. Instead we learn about a robbery of some uncut diamonds from the safe of a family business. One of the business owner’s two nephews, Reuben Hornby, is accused of the theft thanks to a piece of paper left at the scene of the crime which helpfully (for police) has Reuben’s thumb print clearly left in blood. The young man’s family don’t really believe Reuben to be guilty but the police are sure they’ve got their man and even his lawyer recommends a guilty plea. Thorndyke is almost immediately convinced of the man’s innocence and proceeds to collect alternative evidence to support this line of thinking. The real culprit was blindingly obvious to me too but that’s got more to do with my knowledge of whodunnits than my skills in fingerprint forgery, typewriter analysis and cigar manufacture.
It wasn’t just Jervis’ over-the-top adoration of the novel’s hero that had me wondering if R. Austin Freeman was actually a pseudonym for a female writer (perhaps a teenage one). The whole text was pretty melodramatic and Jervis in particular was swooning over more than just his chum. He falls rather heavily for Juliet Gibson, a friend of the Hornby family, after knowing her for all of a nano-second. Juliet possesses many fine qualities and “…was in nowise lacking in that womanly softness that so strongly engages a man’s sympathy” but poor Jervis has to hide his emotions (from her, not from the reader) for reasons of honour.
So, THE RED THUMB MARK is, I suppose, a decent example of crime fiction of the era but not really my cup of tea. The writing is too flowery. Why use one word when 17 can be used instead such as when Jervis is researching suicide or, in his words, “…[undertaking] the consideration of the various methods by which a man might contrive to effect his exit from the stage of human activities“. There really isn’t much substance to the story and a lot of the arcane details are repeated multiple times which diminishes what little interest they offered to begin with. The last quarter of the book, which takes place in court, is about as dull as it gets for me as it repeated many of the details we’d already gleaned. There is a hint of social commentary when Thorndyke waxes lyrical about the fiction of the presumption of innocence in the legal system, but even this lost its lustre for me when it became clear that Thorndyke (or Freeman) only really thought that people of the middle and upper classes ought to be spared the indignities of a flawed judicial system.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Publisher This edition Amazon Digital Services 2012 (original edition 1907)
Length 235 pages
Book Series #1 in the Dr John Thorndyke series