Thoughts on Dr. Thorndyke

I recently finished the first book of Dr. Thorndyke short stories, by R. Austin Freeman. It included stories such as The Man With the Nailed Boots, The Moabite Cipher, and The Message From the Deep Sea. Not included in this edition were the pictures which were included with the original (famously, the stories would include pictures of what Dr. Thorndyke would have seen through his microscope, etc).

They were… interesting. Much less so for themselves, frankly, and much more so as history. As I mentioned in Dr. Thorndyke’s Scientific Wizardry, the stories as mysteries are often very noticeably contrived to make the wizardry possible. The writing is perfectly workmanlike, though it is not inspired nor does it try to be. Freeman’s main interest was the scientific aspect of the stories.

In the novels, where more is required between scientific deductions because the case must take longer, there was often a victorian, flowery melodramatic romance added, at least in the novels I read, which were the first three. I suspect that Freeman (who was born in 1862) enjoyed flowery Victorian romances as a young man and so wrote them when he had the chance.

I would definitely recommend the short stories to anyone interested in the history of detective fiction. Dr. Thorndyke was, apparently, enormously popular at the time and thus had a significant influence, though I think that the modern stories which are most similar—police procedural TV shows involving extensive crime scene analysis—have no direct influence from him. I think it was more a case of convergent evolution; the police procedurals trace their influence most directly from Dragnet, which (so far as I know) was not influenced by the Dr. Thorndyke stories. If anything Dragnet (which started as a radio drama in the 1950s) was influenced by American hard-boiled detective stories, and in any event focused on the details of police procedure rather than on evidence and logical deduction.

So far as I’m aware, Dr. Thorndyke has, other than as a historical curiosity, largely disappeared beneath the sands of time, and I would venture to say deservedly so. I can’t imagine myself ever re-reading one of these stories for pleasure and I wouldn’t even have known about it except for an off-hand reference to Dr. Thorndyke in Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter novel, Have His Carcass. (Which, incidentally, goes to prove the value of pop-culture references in stories; they can help the study of history immensely.)

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