The Eye of Osiris by R Austin Freeman

“Horrible discovery in a watercress-bed!”

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

One November day in 1902, John Bellingham disappears from the study of a friend’s house where he had been waiting for his friend to return home. Two years later, there has still been no sign of him and his potential heirs are left in limbo, unable to execute his rather strange will. And then pieces of a dismembered skeleton begin to show up in odd places. Meantime, young Dr Paul Berkeley, our narrator, has fallen in love with Ruth Bellingham, the missing man’s niece, whose father is one of the potential heirs. He persuades Ruth’s father, Godfrey Bellingham, to allow Dr John Thorndyke, an expert in medical jurisprudence, to look into the case. It’s up to Thorndyke to find a way to identify the remains and to find out what was behind Bellingham’s disappearance.

I’ve read a couple of Thorndyke short stories before, but this was my first full length novel, and it turned out to be not at all what I was expecting. Because of the heavy emphasis on Thorndyke being a scientific investigator, I thought it might be rather dry; and I knew that Freeman was famous for the “inverted” story, where the reader gets to see the villain commit the crime before watching the detective solve it. But this novel is laid out as a traditional mystery and is full of wit, with a charming romance between Berkeley and Ruth to give it warmth. I loved it. Actually, don’t tell anyone but I fell a little in love with young Dr Berkeley myself.

The plot is complex, not so much as to whodunit – the pool of potential suspects is very small – but as to how it was done and perhaps more importantly why it was done in the way it was. There’s a lot in it about Egyptology since several of the characters are linked by their involvement in that field, and a lot more about methods of identifying bodies when there’s not much left of them but bones. The missing man’s will provides another level of complexity, since he specified conditions with regards to where his body should be buried – not easy to fulfil unless his corpse turns up and can be convincingly identified. I believe Thorndyke’s sidekick, Jervis, is usually the narrator of these books, but although he appears in this one he only plays a small part. Berkeley acts as the main sidekick and major character – as a medical doctor he’s ideally placed to act as Godfrey’s representative at inquests, etc.

Challenge details:
Book: 9
Subject Heading: A New Era Dawns
Publication Year: 1911

In his discussion of this story in The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, Martin Edwards says that “the ‘love interest’ did not appeal to every reader; even Dorothy L Sayers – a fervent admirer of Freeman – deplored it.” Edwards also says “the prose lacks sparkle”. Oh dear! It appears I have to disagree with both Sayers and Edwards – I loved the elegance of the prose, which reminded me quite a lot of Conan Doyle’s easy style, and the wit in Berkeley’s observations of the other characters made me chuckle aloud several times. And I adored the romance! Ruth is a lovely love interest – she’s humorous and intelligent, strong and self-reliant. She feels remarkably modern considering the book was written in 1911, and Berkeley’s initial admiration is of her brain and character rather than of her looks or feminine delicacy. And Berkeley’s own realisation that he’s falling in love is done with a lot of beautifully self-deprecating wit and charm. Considering Ms Sayers is responsible for one of the sappiest romances in the history of crime fiction, with the adoring Lord Peter Wimsey languishing after his ladylove for several books, I think she has a bit of a cheek, quite frankly! 😉

“’Orrible discovery at Sidcup!”

I turned wrathfully – for a London street-boy’s yell, let off at point-blank range, is, in effect, like the smack of an open hand – but the inscription on the staring yellow poster that was held up for my inspection changed my anger into curiosity.

“Horrible discovery in a watercress-bed!”

Now, let prigs deny it if they will, but there is something very attractive in a “horrible discovery.” It hints at tragedy, at mystery, at romance. It promises to bring into our grey and commonplace life that element of the dramatic which is the salt that our existence is savoured withal. “In a watercress-bed,” too! The rusticity of the background seemed to emphasise the horror of the discovery, whatever it might be.

In among the more serious characterisation and the scientific stuff, there are a couple of great humorous set pieces that provide a bit of light relief, such as the obstreperous jury member at the inquest, or the maid servant incapable of giving a direct answer to any question, or the various patients Berkeley sees in his professional capacity. Admittedly these smack a little of the golden age snobbery that tends to mock the working classes, but here it’s done with so much warmth I couldn’t find it in me to take offence. I did guess a couple of pieces of the solution but was still in the dark as to motive and exactly how the intricate details of the plot all fitted together until Thorndyke explained all in a typical denouement scene at the end. All together, a very enjoyable read that has left me keen to get to know Freeman and Thorndyke better.

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39 thoughts on “The Eye of Osiris by R Austin Freeman

  1. Count me as another who loved the title of your post, FictionFan! And the book does sound like a great read. You know, it’s interesting about the whole romance angle. Sometimes having a romance sub-plot can take away from a story. I know it does for me. But I’ve seen it done well often enough that I’m not automatically put off when there is that sort of angle in a crime novel. I’m glad it worked here.

    • It’s a great little quote, isn’t it? 😀 I’m the same with romances in crime fiction – mostly I think they just get in the way, but when they’re done well they can provide a welcome break from the drier or darker elements. In this one, the romance was an integral part of the plot, so the book wouldn’t have been as good without it… and young Dr Berkeley is just my type… 😉

  2. I also loved your “horrible discovery” title. 😀 😃 😄
    This sounds like a fun read.
    Wow. Dorothy Sayers had a lot of nerve, as you said, seeing as how she wrote Gaudy Night, Busman’s Honeymoon, and others. Yikes!

  3. FF, you’re on a roll — a five-star read to start the week! This one sounds interesting. Kind of nice not to have DNA testing to mess with the solving of the mystery, ha! And I like your Christmas-y Santa popping out of the chimney!

    • Yep, I had a little run of goodies! 😀 Ha, yes – DNA and all that pesky science stuff is ruining detective fiction! When I rule the world I’ll ban it – go back to proper clues… 😉 Haha – poor Santa! 🎅

  4. Ooh you sound like you’ve found a winner here and I’m with you about Dorothy Sayers; talk about pot and kettle! I’m basing that on the fact that you are the one least likely to approve of romance in a crime novel, me I’m keen on the Egyptology angle – I knew this 100 books malarkey was going to get dangerous 😉

    • I know – what a hypocrite! And believe me, young Dr Berkeley is soooooooo much more attractive than Lord Peter! ❤ The Egyptology stuff was very good – he had clearly done his research but he didn’t load it down with too much info. Hahaha – only another 90 or so to go… 😉

    • I loved it as you’ll have gathered – I’m not usually enthusiastic about romances in crime fiction but this one worked beautifully, I thought, mainly because she wasn’t a drooping helpless victim-type… 😀

    • I’ve enjoyed the short stories I’ve read, but I enjoyed the novel format much more! Is there another you would recommend? (Preferably without a drunken maverick in it… 😉 )

    • The name does make sense when you read it, but I was expecting something different too. It’s a pretty traditional mystery but very well done, and the romance isn’t too sweet – lots of humour in it… 😀

    • I was actually surprised to discover it was written as early as 1911 – it’s feels much more modern somehow, and Ruth is lovely… though not as lovely as young Dr Berkeley… 😉 I’m glad you’re enjoying it – I must admit I’m loving this challenge so far! 😀

    • I loved how modern Ruth was – so nice to have a heroine who worked and was admired for her intelligence – a rarity in the fiction of those days! I bet they had a wonderful life together… 💕

  5. Really, in 1911? Wow. I know I once read one of those old detectives, can’t for the life of me remember the name (something with pines? Detective named Sweetwater, maybe?) But it just bored so much I decided never to try anything like that again 😀

    • Hmm… can’t think who that would have been. The name doesn’t ring a bell. Oh, I love a lot of these older crime novels and there’s a lot of variety in the styles – don’t be put off by just one book! 😀

  6. I am so glad you love this book! I got introduced to Doctor Thorndyke when reading one of Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher novels in which Phryne herself has just discovered them! I now own them all and enjoy them – I am a confirmed “re-reader” – I believe you need to read a good book at least three times to find those little nuances you may have missed!
    However, if you are new to R A Freeman’s Thorndyke you need to make allowances. Freeman was a man of the 19th century and although he lived & wrote into the early 1940s he never lost his 19th century attitudes – to women, to members of the ‘lower classes’, foreigners and the native inhabitants of the Empire, particularly Africa. If, like me, you can read and ignore his lack of ‘political correctness’ and focus on his handling of early 20th century forensics and grasp the fascination of his view of a London which mostly has now mostly disappeared, but traces of which can still be found, I think you will enjoy his books. I read them with Google handy to explain things I did not understand and on later readings to try and find his London.
    May I respectfully suggest you next read “The Red Thumbprint” – or occasionally Red Thumb Mark – it was written around 1907 and will open your eyes to the value then put on fingerprinting!
    PS I love the blog – I am pretty much housebound in winter and read a lot of my favourite detection fiction – I also love chocolate, comedy by Roy Clarke, and quite a bit of TV – Bones, Rizzoli & Isles, Murdoch Mysteries, Lucifer – yes, I know, they’ve all got attractive guys in them – I’m 71 & I’ve not lost interest! My motto? “Growing older is compulsory – growing up and growing old are optional!”

    • I’m so sorry for taking so long to reply – I’ve been having a little blog break. Thanks for popping in and commenting! I’ve been reading a lot of these vintage crime novels recently and thoroughly enjoying a lot of them. I’m usually OK with outdated attitudes – it’s only if they’re really unpleasantly expressed that it bothers me. But usually I find the attitudes towards women especially quite entertaining – I’m old enough for some of them to feel quite familiar! I’ll definitely be reading more of him, so thanks for the recommendation – I’ll put The Red Thumbprint on my list. I love re-reading too though I never seem to find the time these days. But I’ve been listening to a lot of Agatha Christie on audiobooks recently and remembering how much I love her novels.

      Haha – I certainly find that even at my advanced age I can still appreciate a good-looking young man – though mine tend to run to tennis players as much as actors… 😉 Nice to “meet” you, and I’m glad you enjoyed visiting the blog… 😀

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