The Red Thumb Mark

Since there was a printing of it that only cost $4 on Amazon, I bought a copy of The Red Thumb Mark, which was originally published in 1907 and has since fallen out of copyright. It has, perhaps, the largest pages I’ve ever seen in a novel, being likely to be the largest size of paper that whichever print-on-demand printer was used could print upon. On these extremely large pages, the story ran only 100 pages, exactly, and it was interesting because it gave something of the feel of reading a magazine rather than a book. This might have made the experience more authentic, as many novels were first printed as serials in a magazine, except I cannot discover that The Red Thumb Mark was one of them. I was forced to settle for faux-authenticity, much as one may still gain from velour some hint of that richness of true velvet.

The Red Thumb Mark was the first novel by R. Austin Freeman containing his famous-in-the-golden-age detective, Dr. John Evelyn Thorndyke. I had expected, on the basis of what I read about the Dr. Thorndyke novels both in Wikipedia and Masters of Mystery, to find it very dry. It was, admittedly, a little long on the scientific evidence, but I was pleasantly surprised to find it quite enjoyable. Also, it turns out that Dr. Freeman (R. Austin Freeman was, himself, a medical doctor) invented the inverted detective story after The Red Thumb Mark, for The Red Thumb Mark is a conventional whodunnit, if one that places greater emphasis upon the evidence than the culprit, makes it fairly clear by about a third of the way into the book who actually committed the crime, and whose reveal of the real criminal was anticlimactic, with no actual reveal to any of the people principally concerned who did it.

The story is narrated by Dr. Christopher Jervis, an out-of-work doctor who, in a chance meeting, comes across an old schoolmate who he had not seen in a long time—Dr. John Evelyn Thorndyke. While Jervis had fallen upon evil times and was unemployed, Thorndyke had stumbled into a most unusual occupation, being an admixture of a private consulting detective and a scientific expert hired to give testimony in court cases. During the course of their dinner a client comes in and dumps upon Thorndyke the case of the red thumb mark, from which the story draws its title, and Thorndyke hires Jervis to do investigative work for him, and provides him with living space while he does this work. Thorndyke also has a manservant, Polton, who both cooks his meals and assists him in the lab.

We have, then, a setup much like that of Sherlock Holmes—we have the bachelor quarters, Thorndyke as Holmes, of course; in Polton a Mrs. Hudson; and in Dr. Jervis a Dr. Watson. The story is written by Dr. Jervis in a similar sort of first-person, retrospective perspective to the way that Dr. Watson wrote his memoirs of his great detective. Described in this manner it seems very derivative, and of course, it was. The first Sherlock Holmes story was A Study in Scarlet in 1887, but supposedly it was not until the first short stories were published in Strand Magazine in 1891 that Holmes became wildly popular. Curiously, it was only two years later, in December of 1893, that Conan Doyle killed Holmes off in The Final Problem. It took Conan Doyle until 1903 to write The Adventure of the Empty House and bring back Sherlock Holmes from the Reichenbach falls, a scant 4 years before The Red Thumb Mark was published. The stories which made up The Return of Sherlock Holmes were published in 1903-1904, and it would not be until 1908 that more Holmes stories were forthcoming.

In this context, with Holmes having become wildly popular 16 years before and killed off 13 years before (that is, three years after becoming popular), with a collection of new stories finally coming out four years before and with no promise of more on the horizon, detective stories which were highly derivative of Sherlock Holmes were probably quite welcome. What people really want is not originality, but good stories; this is why, as the saying goes, mediocrity borrows and genius steals. I think this might be very analogous to how, in the aftermath of Star Wars, there was a spate of science fiction movies and especially novels which fans eagerly devoured. If you can’t get more of the original, something very similar is much better than nothing.

In The Red Thumb Mark, I think this is much more a case of genius stealing than mediocrity borrowing; Dr. Freeman makes the characters he created individuals. They are clearly inspired by the characters from the Holmes stories, but they are not copies of them. Dr. Thorndyke is highly rational, but is not the cold, calculating machine that Holmes is. Dr. Jervis is clearly not as brilliant as Dr. Thorndyke, but he is both more competent and more of a character than is Dr. Thorndyke. Indeed, in The Red Thumb Mark, at least, Jervis has far more “screen time” than Thorndyke. He makes some worthwhile deductions, and even gets praised for his creative imagination. Polton is an active assistant in cases, as well as a cook.

There is, further, affection between the characters. Mrs. Hudson was, it is true, fond of Sherlock Holmes, but Polton is devoted to Thorndyke, in his professional life as well as to him personally. Thorndyke does really care about Jervis, and not merely in brief flashes. Moreover, Thorndyke engages in witty reparté. There is not only humor, but clever expression in The Red Thumb Mark.

I will consider the mystery as a mystery in another post, but I find this take on the setup of Sherlock Holmes to be quite curious, especially in its historical context.

(It is also interesting to view Polton as something of the predecessor of Lord Peter’s valet, Bunter. It is curious to trace possible influences, as ideas come to take the forms that last through intermediaries which are forgotten.)

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