Dr. Thorndyke’s Scientific Wizardry

I recently read the Dr. Thorndyke short story A Message From the Deep Sea. I’m not sure when it was first published, but it was collected in John Thorndyke’s Cases, the first short story collection of Thorndyke short stories, published in 1909. It’s a good example of the scientific wizardry that Thorndyke typified—you can loosely describe Dr. Thorndyke as “Sherlock Holmes with all of the humanity removed”. The police detective and police surgeon come to the wrong conclusion in a case where the murderer was trying to frame someone. Only Thorndyke, through his very careful examination and encyclopedia knowledge of everything, was able to see through it. The case, by the way, was that a single woman in her twenties—a German immigrant lodging in England for several years now, generally liked—was murdered in the middle of the night by having her throat slashed while she slept. In one of her hands she held a few strands of long red hair, pointing to the daughter of the landlord as the murderer because the victim stole the other woman’s fiancé from her.

I find it interesting that Thorndyke was able to see through the framing because of a setup designed to allow him to do it. In some sense, of course, this always has to be true in fiction because nothing happens without the story being written to allow it to happen. Somewhat analogous to God, nothing can happen in a story without being in at least the permissive will of the author. In this case, though, the story was really designed around Thorndyke seeing through it. That is, he required a lot of the story to be unusual in order for his scientific wizardry to work.

The titular message from the deep sea was a sand on the murdered woman’s pillow that turned out to be, under the microscrope, deep sea sand from the Mediterranean ocean. In fact, among the micro-shells of the Foraminifera in the sand, was a species that only lives near the Levant, making it possible to identify where in the Mediterranean the sand came from.

At first it seems very strange that sand from the bottom of the Mediterranean sea should show up on the pillow of a dead woman, but it turns out that the man who murdered her—her former boyfriend who she threw off for the fiancé of the landlord’s daughter—worked in a factory that imported and processed turkish sponges. In the early 1900s these would have been literal sponges from the sea floor, rather than the synthetic replicas we use today, so the collection of them would have involved copious quantities of sand being brought up along with them. And, it turned out, the murderer was a laborer in a factory that imported and processed the sponges. Since such sand is everywhere in these factories—the floors are often covered in it ankle-deep, and the men who work there get thoroughly dusted in it. If such a man were to bend over, some would naturally spill out of his pockets and the various folds of his clothing.

There were also some details about damp footprints which could only have been caused by the rain which happened for about an hour before the victim was murdered, with no rain having fallen for the preceding fortnight. Also, there were some candle-grease marks that were left and a bit of candle in a common candle-box which bore the octagonal mark of an unusual candle-holder in the victim’s room.

Oh, also, a tiny bit of the knife used to kill the victim was chipped off on one of her neck vertebrae (which Thorndyke found but the police surgeon missed) which corresponded exactly to a chip in the blade of the knife which the ex-boyfriend used to try to kill Thorndyke at the inquest once Thorndyke had proved him guilty.

Actually, I forgot to mention the part where Thorndyke explained that the victim’s hand wasn’t holding the hairs in a death-grip but only had them placed there afterwards, and also the hairs were clearly taken from a brush because there were hair bulbs on both ends, not all on the same end, and furthermore the hairs had clearly fallen out naturally because they didn’t have the surrounding part of the follicle which comes out when live hair is ripped out but doesn’t come out when it naturally sheds.

The explanation of all of the evidence which Thorndyke collected, which took several pages of slow and exacting explanation occasionally interrupted by questions from the coroner, does make Thorndyke look something like a wizard, especially when other experts in the room missed it all. I can see why it was popular at the time, especially since forensic science was quite new in 1909. Looking at stuff under a microscope to prove what it was was hot stuff at the time. Having an encyclopedia knowledge of anything is always impressive.

The thing is, these are all very strange coincidences. How often is someone murdered by a person who works in a factory that coats them with extremely distinctive powder? (One might object that they don’t change out of their work clothes, but in the early 1900s people had far less clothing and a bachelor might well not change his clothes after coming home from work.) How often is a murder committed during the one hour it rained in the last two weeks? (Something I’m less familiar with—how often does it go two weeks without rain in England?)

The knife getting chipped is not wildly out of the ordinary. (I’ve seen this fairly often with broadheads going through deer.) Without the murderer having been identified, though, it would not have been useful as evidence, except perhaps to exculpate the accused woman because her knife had no chip in it.

The hair with roots on both side struck me as the only really solid evidence of the case that was not put there merely to make Thorndyke look good. A person trying to frame someone with unusual hair might well try to plant their hair at the scene of the crime. Closing the victim’s hand on the hair but not being able to turn it into a death-grip is a mistake any murderer might make. The roots of the hair showing that they were shed and not ripped out would happen from hair that was taken from a brush, and the roots being on both sides would probably show up as well. How many murderers would take the time to orient the hairs with all of their roots on the same side?

One other curious thing about this case is that Thorndyke uses fingerprints as evidence. He found fingerprints in the discarded candle, and then matched them to fingerprints he stealthily took from the former boyfriend on a pretended chance encounter. (He gave the former boyfriend a picture to hold to help him identify, then dusted it for fingerprints.) Using fingerprints is quite unusual in detective fiction, in my experience. Indeed, Thorndyke make his first appearance in the novel The Red Thumb Mark, in which Thorndyke revealed his scientific wizardry in proving that the fingerprint in blood which was the chief evidence against Thorndyke’s client had been forged. The fingerprint is not very strong evidence, though, since it was taken from a candle in a common box, and the former boyfriend had been until very recently a lodger in the house. It wasn’t nothing, but it certainly wasn’t the main evidence used.

Incidentally, this reminds me of S.S. Van Dine’s rule of detective fiction number 20A: “[Do not use, because it has been over-used] determining the identity of the culprit by comparing the butt of a cigarette left at the scene of the crime with the brand smoked by a suspect.”

Murderers smoking exotic brands of cigarettes was common, for a while. Thorndyke, you must recall, solved the crime of the sea-sand twenty years before Van Dine wrote this list. That said, even Sherlock Holmes did not consider the butt-ends of cigarettes very often; he had trained himself in the much more difficult identification of cigar ash.

All in all, this case is entertaining, though only just. Back in 1908, when read in a magazine or newspaper, much in the same way we might watch an episode of a TV show, it would have been more entertaining. Thorndyke reminds me a bit, though, of the superhero Aquaman. Since his powers depended on water, the writers were forced to always work water into the scene of Aquaman’s fight with the bad guys. Thorndyke’s super-powers depend upon the microscopic traces of unusual conditions, so the writer must always work very unusual circumstances into his stories.

I’ve really come to appreciate Poirot’s line, in Murder on the Links, “Mon ami, a clue of two feet long is every bit as valuable as one measuring two millimetres!” He elaborates a bit later:

“One thing more, Poirot, what about the piece of lead piping?”

“You do not see? To disfigure the victim’s face so that it would be unrecognizable. It was that which first set me on the right track. And that imbecile of a Giraud, swarming all over it to look for match ends! Did I not tell you that a clue of two feet long was quite as good as a clue of two inches?”

Ultimately, I think that the clues that are two feet long have tended to win out over the clues that are two millimetres long. The clues which require a microscrope are now the domain of technicians who one hires at an hourly wage to examine crime scenes. We like to read about the people who analyze the clues, not the people who gather them up with specialized equipment.

At the end of the day, I am not surprised that I only discovered that Dr. Thorndyke ever existed from an off-hand line in a Lord Peter Wimsey story. It’s still interesting to see what’s been forgotten, though. And also interesting to see what readers will forgive when a genre is new.

One thought on “Dr. Thorndyke’s Scientific Wizardry

  1. Mary

    Andre Norton used fingerprints in her first novel A Prince Commands. It’s not very effective. In fact, the whole trial scene where they are used could be excised from the novel to no loss. . . .

    First novel.

    Liked by 1 person

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