The Adventures of Dr Thorndyke (The Singing Bone) – R Austin Freeman (1912)

I’ve been enjoying the enthusiasm displayed for the work of R Austin Freeman by JJ over at The Invisible Event, and when I stumbled upon a cheap set of Freeman paperbacks by Avon and Popular Library, I snatched them up immediately.  I was tempted still to seek out The Singing Bone (which seems to be Freeman’s most heralded story collection), nearly dropping $10 on a mediocre-covered edition.  Thank goodness I passed it up though: out of the five books I’d collected, I somewhat randomly decided to start my Freeman reading with The Adventures of Dr Thorndyke. Flipping open the cover of my Popular Library edition,I was astonished to learn that it was actually the US title for The Singing Bone.

The Adventures of Dr Thorndyke features five short stories, each divided into two halves.  In the first half of each, we get an inverted mystery set up, showing how some soul was led down a dark path to murder, and their subsequent steps to avoid detection.  In the second half, the story completely shifts perspective, and we watch as series detective Dr Thorndyke applies scientific principles to uncover the truth.  In a sense, we’re really treated to ten short stories – five tales of villainy and five tales of detection (ok, so the final story The Old Lag doesn’t quite fit the mold).

The Case of Oscar Brodski does well to set the stage by illustrating Dr Thorndyke’s terminator-like effectiveness as a detective.  Thorndyke is like Freeman Wills Crofts’s Inspector French on steroids, shredding through evidence in an unrelenting crusade for the truth.  Here we have a fairly sloppy killer relative to the other stories, and the amount of evidence present sets the stage for how the detective operates later on under much leaner circumstances.

It’s interesting that Thorndyke’s involvement typically only leads up to identifying the murderer – actually dealing with the culprit is left to the police and often summarized in passing at the end of each story.  In fact, Thorndyke doesn’t actually seem to care much about the justice meted out to the guilty party; he’s much more focused on unraveling the truth.

A Case of Premeditation may be my favorite in the collection, if only for the insane lengths that the killer goes through to evade detection.  As the reader, you’re well aware of who they are going to kill, but you don’t really understand how.  Freeman provides this excellent passage where the villain goes on a shopping spree throughout London, purchasing all sorts of strange items, thus creating a baffling mystery of what they are going to do with them.  You then watch the plan get carried out, and step by step you observe the assembly of the perfect crime.  Of course, Dr Thorndyke picks it apart in minutes, along with shredding a trope mystery writers had relied upon for years.

The Echo of a Mutiny is the story from which The Singing Bone gets its name, and honestly, this should have been turned into a novel.  The amount of backstory that Freeman crafts in the fourteen page first half is worthy of 120 pages.  And man, his description of the coastal lighthouse setting?  What I’d give for a book of that, mystery or not.  Come to think of it, I might need to go on a nautical mystery binge.  Any good recommendations?  I just realized in horror that I don’t have any of Freeman Wills Crofts’ books that seem to fit the bill.

A Wastrel’s Romance tugs a bit at the heartstrings, with the titular character fumbling the rekindling of an old passion.  It’s a case where you think that the killer has absolutely gotten away scot-free, but Thorndyke proves your assumption wrong.  The same could be said for the final tale, The Old Lag – the only story breaking the mold by providing dual mysteries in both its parts – wherein Thorndyke applies an evidence-based approach that I can only assume was novel at the time to (somewhat unbelievably) track down an unknown man in the expanse of London based simply on the evidence of a coat.

This collection really should be read as one.  Yeah, you could hen peck at these stories (as I’m prone to do), but this is one of those rare examples in my experience where a collection of short stories truly feels like a complete work.  There’s no story here that’s absolutely going to blow your mind (these are inverted mysteries after all) but Freeman’s writing is so enjoyable that this one is definitely worth tracking down.

My edition

The cover of my Popular Library edition combines a scene from The Case of Oscar Brodski with the setting of The Echo of Mutiny.  The Popular Library covers usually have this strange art style that is distinct from much of the illustrated covers of the time.  My edition contains a two page preface by the author, explaining his approach to writing the stories.  I’m not sure if this preface is in all editions of the book.

16 thoughts on “The Adventures of Dr Thorndyke (The Singing Bone) – R Austin Freeman (1912)”

  1. I am, of course, delighted to see you respond so positively to these. I thought it was a great collection which brought a huge amount to the genre at the time of writing, and lays out why Freeman went on to have such an influence on what happened in the next few decades.

    What other titles did you get? If we can’t coincide on Dead Man’s Gift, maybe we could tee up a Thorndyke simul-post at some point.

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    1. I haven’t taken the time to become even vaguely versed on Freeman’s catalogue, so it’s possible some of these titles are available under different names. As of now, I have:
      – Mr Polton Explains
      – The Unconscious Witness
      – Mr Pottermack’s Oversight
      – The Red Thumb Mark
      – The Mystery of Angelina Frood
      – The Silent Witness
      – The Stoneware Monkey
      – Dr Thorndyke’s Discovery

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      1. Dr. Thorndyke’s Discovery is also known as When Rogues Falls Out and, I’m told, contains spoilers for The Red Thumb Mark and so should not be read in advance of that book.

        The Unconscious Witness is the vt for The Jacob Street Mystery, which I believe is the final Thorndyke novel.

        I’ll email you a list of my understanding of the Thorndyke oeuvre in case it may be useful in future.

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  2. Glad you enjoyed your first Thorndyke! My favourites of these are Oscar Brodski – I like Thorndyke’s inexorable following of the material clues – and A Wastrel’s Romance is charming. And Freeman makes reading about dust intriguing; Mike Grost said the vision of the microscopic world was magical.

    You want a Thorndyke novel set on a lighthouse? You’re in luck. Try The Shadow of the Wolf (1925). It’s in some ways an expansion of “Mutiny” – another inverted story.

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      1. Yeah, crazy really. Complete Sherlock Holmes, Father Brown, Thorndyke, Ethel Lina White, etc. Public domain but something like 9,000 pages for $1.49!
        So I have added Shadow of the Wolf to my TBR.

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  3. Mr. Pottermack’s Oversight is arguably the best of the inverted novels – The Shadow of the Wolf is another, almost as good, and When Rogues Fall Out may be described as semi-inverted – you’ll see what I mean when you have read it. My personal favourite of the above is The Mystery of Angelina Frood, for a reason I won’t even hint at.
    BTW, if you have the House of Stratus editions of any of the above, the blurbs can be rather misleading (fortunately, no spoilers, though).

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  4. For a nautical mystery recco, I just finished The Devil and the Dark Sea by Stuart Turton. Fairly great and he really brings 1630 schooner alive and has a breathless pace (which both works for and against the book). It constantly inverts the tropes (having the Sherlock-y detective indisposed, and making the Watson-y character the center of the story). The impossibilites it sets up thought are genuinely confounding, and multiple times while reading the middle of the book I wondered if it was just a straight up supernatural novel.

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  5. The first three stories from this book are also available in the collection “The Best Dr. Thorndyke Detective Stories” published by Dover in 1973 and still in print (with a new cover). My favorite is “Oscar Brodsky”.

    Other stories in this collection are “The Mandarin’s Pearl”, “The Blue Sequin” , “The Moabite Cipher” and “The Aluminum Dagger” (all from the 1909 collection Dr. John Thorndyke’s Cases) and a 75-page novella version of “31 New Inn”.

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