Death of a diamond merchant…
When she read last week’s guest post from Martin Edwards on Ten Top Golden Age Detectives, regular commenter BigSister (who, by an amazing coincidence, is my big sister) mentioned one of her own favourite early mystery writers, R Austin Freeman, and specifically his “inverted mysteries”, a format he apparently pretty much invented. This is a story that starts by showing the crime, including allowing the reader to know the culprit, and then shows how the investigator attempts to solve it. So, since one must always listen to one’s big sister (well, except when she’s praising Vin Diesel films or banging on about fantasy novels), I promptly selected what I think is the first of these stories for this week’s…
The Case of Oscar Brodski
by R Austin Freeman
The first part of the story introduces us to Silas Hickler, a successful burglar with connections to the diamond industry, and a convenient conscience that allows him to commit his crimes without suffering too greatly from remorse.
No one, looking into his cheerful, round face, beaming with benevolence and wreathed in perpetual smiles, would have imagined him to be a criminal. Least of all, his worthy, high-church housekeeper, who was a witness to his unvarying amiability, who constantly heard him carolling light-heartedly about the house and noted his appreciative zest at meal-times.
One October evening, the aforesaid housekeeper is out and Silas himself is preparing to go on a journey to Amsterdam to sell some dodgy diamonds, when a man stops at his house to ask for directions to the train station. Silas recognises the man immediately as Oscar Brodski, a well-known and reputable diamond merchant. When Silas learns that Brodski is also headed for Amsterdam, he speculates that the merchant is likely to be carrying some valuable diamonds and immediately his greed begins to put ideas into his head. After all, it wouldn’t be the first time…
Crimes against the person he had always looked upon as sheer insanity. There was, it is true, that little affair of the Weybridge policeman, but that was unforeseen and unavoidable, and it was the constable’s doing after all. And there was the old housekeeper at Epsom, too, but, of course, if the old idiot would shriek in that insane fashion…
And so Mr Brodski’s fate is soon sealed…
So, for half-a-minute, he stood motionless, like a symbolical statue of Murder, glaring down with horrible, glittering eyes upon the unconscious diamond merchant, while his quick breath passed without a sound through his open mouth and his fingers writhed slowly like the tentacles of a giant hydra.
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Part 2 introduces Dr John Thorndyke and his sidekick, Christopher Jervis, who is our narrator for this section. Thorndyke is a scientific detective, who always carries a case filled with equipment, such as a miniature microscope. He happens to be on a train that is held up by the discovery of a body on the line, decapitated by a passing goods train but still recognisably poor old Brodski. Not convinced that Brodski’s death is accidental, he sets out to investigate…
“In a case of this kind,” he remarked, “we have to decide on one of three possible explanations: accident, suicide or homicide; and our decision will be determined by inferences from three sets of facts: first, the general facts of the case; second, the special data obtained by examination of the body, and, third, the special data obtained by examining the spot on which the body was found.”
With the help of Jervis and his trusty microscope, Thorndyke does exactly that, and, deciding that Brodski was the victim of murder, goes on to track down the perpetrator of the crime.
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Well, I found this thoroughly entertaining! The first section takes us inside the mind of the murderer and has some great melodramatic writing that gives the whole thing an atmosphere of growing horror. By contrast, the second section is written very matter-of-factly, with Thorndyke relying almost entirely on forensic evidence to solve the crime. There are elements of Holmes in Thorndyke’s cerebral, scientific approach, but I would have missed the physical drama that usually livens up the Holmes’ stories, had it not been provided in the first section. Jervis is a much more perceptive sidekick than Watson, and the story hints that he is in fact being trained by Thorndyke to follow his methods rather than simply being a staunch friend. The police are, of course, pretty thick – initially dismissive of Thorndyke’s strange methods and then awestruck by his results.
I enjoyed Freeman’s writing style, especially in the first section, and the forensic stuff holds up well to age and is convincing, with only a couple of moments when Thorndyke seems to make spectacular assumptions based on very little evidence. First published in 1912, Thorndyke ends by suggesting there is an “urgent need of a trained scientist to aid the police” in such cases. From the number of forensic experts infesting modern crime fiction, it appears he got his wish. I look forward to reading more of the Thorndyke stories.
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I read the story in this Kindle collection, which I acquired for the vast sum of 49p. It doesn’t seem to be available in the US, but many other similarly priced collections are available. This particular story was originally published in the collection called The Singing Bone, or under the more prosaic US title of The Adventures of Dr Thorndyke.
Alternatively, if you’d like to read it online, here’s a link.
I took the pics from an interesting post on a blog called Ontos, where the various TV incarnations of Dr Thorndyke are discussed.
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Little Grey Cells rating: ❓ (it’s not really a mystery in that sense)
Overall story rating: 😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂