R. Austin Freeman: Classic Mystery Creator of Dr. Thorndike

by FloraBreenRobison

R. Austin Freeman was a Victorian Era medical man who created his own fictional detective and narrator sidekick like his friend Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

R. Austin Freeman was a doctor who created a doctor for his Victorian detective. Dr. Thorndike used scientific methods to solve cases. R. Austin Freeman invented the inverted mystery form where you know the killer at the beginning of the story, but eventually he abandoned the concept.

A Man Few Non-Fans Can Name But Whose Influence Is Still Felt Today in the Mystery Genre

A Comparison Between F. Austin Freeman and His More Famous Contemporary Fellow Doctor/Author

R. Austin Freeman had several things in common with his famous peer of classic mystery. He had a medical degree and turned to writing as a second career. His London-based detective was based on a real person that the author knew, and his character's investigations were based on logic, reason, and facts. The difference was that Dr. John Thorndike was the doctor in the detective-biographer paradigm, instead of the biographer. As such, Thorndike was never accused of being an amateur by the police like Sherlock Holmes sometimes was by Scotland Yard.

Furthermore, because Thorndike was a doctor, readers were treated to in depth forensic medical procedures in the solution to the cases. Every single experiment the audience ever reads in a Thorndike mystery is real. Freeman tested every experiment to see if the solution were true to life. If the experiment failed, it didn't make it into the mystery he was writing, and another solution was required. Thus, if you had access to the proper equipment, time, and effort, you could carry out the experiment yourself.

Finally-unlike Dr. Watson, we rarely hear about any time that Jervis is away from Dr. Thorndike or his home life. It's as if his life closes off between the times he is with the doctor. Whether this was because Freeman only wanted Jervis as a sidekick to fit the paradigm or because he just found Thorndike more interesting without the distraction of a fleshed out biographer is difficult to say. There is far more written by and about Doyle and his relationship with Holmes than there is regarding Freeman and his relationship with Thorndike.

The first Dr. Thorndike/Jervis novel was The Red Thumb Mark, published in 1907. In it, the primary evidence against the main suspect are fingerprints in the safe. But the real culprit had access to the suspect's fingerprints. And Dr. Thorndike was able to prove that as long as you have access to a genuine fingerprint and the proper materials, it is possible to forge a fingerprint and frame an innocent person. Meanwhile, trying to be too fancy will give the forgery away.

Dr. Thorndike and Jervis remain the only contemporaries of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson who continue to have a strong faithful following. However, it is much harder to find copies of Freeman's novels than it is to find those of Doyle's for people who love to have a printed book in their hands-a real book.  As for the writer himself, you cannot even find a photograph of Dr. Freeman on Wikimedia Commons. However, collections of Thorndike short stories and novellas are available and you can usually find them individually in anthologies of various authors or online. .

The Inventor of The Inverted Mystery

It failed in Victorian Era fiction, but it would thrive on television

The Inverted Mystery has become a popular form through television. The late, great Peter Falk starred as Lt. Columbo in the 1970s in a series of inverted murders where the killer is played by a famous actor or actress. We see the killer prior to the crime interacting with the future victim and learn why the guest star has to kill the intended victim. We see the killer plan the crime, carry out the crime, and then try to hide the crime. Only then do we see Columbo enter the story. We watch him investigate and sift through the facts of the case and solve the murder. The murderer is always caught.

Inverted mysteries did not start in television, but in print stories written by R. Austin Freeman. He wanted to write a series of mysteries where we see the criminal commit a crime, then see Dr. Thorndike solve the crime. In one particularly baffling case-at first, that is, Thorndike was able to prove that the skeleton in a burned down house was not that of the supposed victim, but that of a different person. Thorndike could tell from the shape and condition of the skeleton that

a) the bones were not only too old to be of a recently deceased person, but that

b) while the supposed victim was a young healthy white man, the skeleton was that ofan African woman of the lower classes.

Unfortunately, the inverted mystery was a failure in print form. No one wanted to know the solution to the crime before the detective entered the picture. People wanted to try and outwit the detective first. Eventually, Freeman abandoned the inverted mystery.

Where Freeman Died

Born in London, Died in Gravesend, Kent, England

A Bibliography of R. Austin Freeman's Dr. Thorndike

The Novels and Short Story Collections

The Red Thumbmark 1907

John Thorndike's Cases 1909 aka Dr. Thorndike's Cases

The Eye of Osiris 1911 aka The AVanishing Man

The Mystery of 31 New Inn 1912

The Singing Bone 1912 aka The Adventures of Dr. Thorndike

A Silent Witness 1914

The Great Portrait Mystery 1918

Helen Vardon's Confession 1922

The Cat's Eye 1923

Dr. Thondike's Case Book 1932 aka The Blue Scarab

The Mystery of Angelina Frood 1924

The Shadow of the Wolf 1925

The D'Arblay Mystery 1926

A Certain Dr. Thorndike 1927

The Magic Casket 1927

The Puzzle lock 1927

As a Thief in the Night 1928

The Famous Cases of Dr. Thorndike 1929 aka The Dr. Thorndike Omnibus

Dr. Thorndike Investigates 1930

Mr. Pottermack's Oversight

Pontifex, Son and Thorndike 1931

Dr. Thorndike Intervenes 1933

For the Defence: Dr. Thorndike 1934

The Penrose Mystery 1936

Felo De Se? 1937 aka Death at the Inn

The Stoneware Monkey 1938

Mr. Polton Explains 1940

The Jacob Street Mystery 1942 aka The Unconscious Witness

The Best Dr. Thorndike Detective Stories 1973

R. Austin Freeman

Dr. Thornkdike Creator
John Thorndyke's Cases

This anthology is a thorough introduction to classic literature for those who have not yet experienced these literary masterworks. For those who have known and loved these works...

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The Red Thumb Mark

The Red Thumb Mark is presented here in a high quality paperback edition. This popular classic work by R. Austin (Richard Austin) Freeman is in the English language, and may not...

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The Works of R. Austin Freeman: 28 Novels and Short Stories (Halcyon Classics)

This Halcyon Classics ebook contains twenty-eight novels and short stories by British mystery writer R. Austin Freeman, who wrote during the "Golden Age of Detective Fiction" du...

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Updated: 04/09/2012, FloraBreenRobison
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FloraBreenRobison on 04/12/2012

Steve: Only twice-as part of a short lived tv series called The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes and as a TV series episode of Detective. There were two episodes of The Rivals... done. One was Thorndike and one was his other detective under a pen name of Clifford Ashdown that he used for a different type of writing-more of a private eye dime store novel type of writing. Lots of writers use more than one name to differentiate between genres or, in this case, sub-genres.

Steve Lensman on 04/12/2012

Have any of his stories been filmed or adapted for TV? Thats probably one of the reasons I've never heard of him.

FloraBreenRobison on 04/12/2012

Steve-Hi, Thanks for sharing that you are not familiar with him. I know you are a fan of detective fiction, so you are a wonderful example of what I mean about him being forgotten: there are plenty of authors who are known to non-fans of classic mysteries (everyone has heard of Agatha Christie even if you have never read her) , but fans of the genre are often aware of names that others don't know anymore. I hope you will get a chance to read Freeman. He is a wonderful writer. I actually own my own copy of The Red Thumbmark-found it by accident in a used book store.

Steve Lensman on 04/12/2012

Interesting article Flora, I've never heard of this author or his creation before.

FloraBreenRobison on 04/12/2012

Hi, Katie!
That's what I love about the classic mysteries. I try to solve them before the detective. I quite often don't, but I love the challenge :)

katiem2 on 04/12/2012

I enjoy a good mystery, I too like to solve it in my mind as I read along before the reveal!

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