Thursday, 4 February 2010

Detective stories for winter evenings

Due to inclement weather the bardic running shoes are taking their seasonal break. This is better policy than risking a slip by running in the dusk along icy and snowy paths and trails. At this time of year the opportunity is always taken to allow the body a chance to recover from those undetected micro-injuries doubtless sustained in the previous several months of intensive running. Nature must always be given a chance to repair such micro-injuries. A stitch in time saves nine, as the saying goes.

And so what to read in the bardic armchair during the evening is a question that must be addressed. Not much point in ploughing through yet another poetry book when it's the daily fare. Like the body, the overactive brain needs a rest too, or at least a change of literary environment. And so, as far as this reader is concerned, something lighter is definitely called for. Something along the lines of a collection of entertaining detective mysteries.

I have no idea whether or not the book I'm going to mention is still in print. If not it will, I imagine, be available in many a public library, in the UK at least.

My copy of the Dr. Thorndyke Omnibus - his famous cases described by R. Austin Freeman (Hodder & Stoughton) is a 1959 reprint. The book was first published in 1929. It contains the famous cases of Dr. John Thorndyke; no less than thirty-seven of his criminal investigations.

In the preface the author describes how he has divided the stories into two groups which he has named 'inverted' and 'direct' stories. The attraction of the detective story, he explains, is primarily intellectual. The one essential, sine qua non, is a problem, the solution of which shall afford the reader an agreeable exercise in intellectual gymnastics.

Detective stories must conform to three indispensable conditions.-
1. the problem must be susceptible of at least approximate solution by the reader
2. the solution offered must be absolutely conclusive and convincing
3. no material fact must be withheld from the reader

Richard Austin Freeman experimented with the classic format to test his hypothesis that it would be possible to write a detective story in which, from the outset, the reader was taken entirely into the author's confidence, was made an actual witness to the crime and furnished with every fact that could be possibly used in its detection.

The result was the first story in this R. Austin Freeman omnibus - The Case of Oscar Brodski. The usual conditions are reversed. The reader knows everything. The detective knows nothing. The interest is focused on the unexpected significance of trivial circumstance. And so a new genre of detective story was born: the 'inverted' story.

There are six inverted stories in the collection. My favourite, so far, is The Echo of a Mutiny. In this story of three lighthouse keepers one of them is killed by one of the other two. The big clue that finally clinches the case for Dr. Thorndyke, ably assisted by his loyal bag carrier Dr. Jarvis, is to do with the pipe and tobacco found in the pocket of the deceased. It's a kind of Sherlock Holmes with sprinklings of science and homespun philosophy, viz:

Popular belief ascribes to infants and the lower animals certain occult powers of divining disaster denied to the reasoning faculties of the human adult; and is apt to accept their judgement as finally over-riding the pronouncements of mere experience.

Whether this belief rests upon any foundation other than the universal love of paradox it is unnecessary to inquire. It is very generally entertained, especially by ladies of a certain social status; and by Mrs. Thomas Solly it was loyally maintained as an article of faith.
(from The Echo of a Mutiny)

You may now attempt to run down your own copy of R. Austin Freeman's Dr. Thorndyke Omnibus. Leave no stone unturned. And good luck in your quest. The rewards are well worth the chase.


  1. I've never come across this man. He sounds fascinating.

    My favourite detective story involving a lighthouse keeper is the story of The Politician, the Lighthouse Keeper and the Trained Cormorant.

  2. There are many strange stories about lighthouse keepers and yours sounds like a potential classic.

    An omnibus of lighthouse keeper mysteries should keep many a reader entertained on a winter evening. I wonder if there is such a book. I expect there may be several.

    I wrote a poem about an Irish lighthouse keeper. It's in the book you gave Pat at Christmas.


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