The Eye of Osiris

So, I’ve read the second Dr. Thorndyke novel, The Eye of Osiris. I didn’t entirely expect to do that, but I was curious how Dr. Freeman introduced the inverted detective story (“howchatchem” as opposed to “whodunnit”). I didn’t find out, though, because it turns out that he didn’t do it in this novel, either. The villain was relatively obvious, but his identity was not revealed until the second to last chapter.

I doubt that there is a point to spoiler warnings on works so old that they were published before any reader of this blog post was born. Moreover, if one wants to read the story The Eye of Osiris in a state of total ignorance as to what the next page carries, it seems improbably in the extreme that one would read a blog post with that title, and whose first paragraph purports to be about that very book. That said, if such is your aim, dear reader, stop reading this post and go read the book.

Rather to my surprise, The Eye of Osiris is narrated, not by Dr. Jervis, but by another doctor whose name I forget. Whereas Jervis was unemployed and came into the employ of Dr. Thorndyke, this doctor—his name is Berkeley, I just looked it up—is filling in for another doctor, who owns a private practice, and who is now on vacation. Dr. Berkeley is young, and was taught in school by Thorndyke, which is how he knows him. Other than these variations, he fulfills much the same role that Dr. Jervis did in the first book. It is for Dr. Berkeley to become a friend of the household, to extract information about it from passing conversation, and to fall in love with the beautiful and intelligent young lady who lives in it. Dr. Jervis, presumably now married to the beautiful and intelligent young lady from the household of the previous case, has precious little to do in this story. This will sound more significant when the reader understands that about a third of each book is taken up with its respective doctor falling in love with its respective lady.

The mystery, itself, is interesting, though the chief of the mystery isn’t really who did it—there are only two plausible suspects, and one of them swears that the other didn’t know about the will which could be his only motive. To give the barest summary of the plot: a rich man, John Bellingham, called on his cousin, Mr. Hurst, after a month-long overseas trip, but when Hurst came home and checked in his study, Bellingham was not there despite the maid not seeing him leave. Hurst rushed over to Bellingham’s layer, Mr. Jellicoe, and together they went to Bellingham’s brother’s house, where Jellicoe found a scarab Bellingham always wore on his watch chain. Two years later, bones from an apparently dismembered body started showing up in pools and rivers in an area near to where the missing man’s house was. John Bellingham’s will left a few thousand pounds to Mr. Jellicoe, who shared Bellingham’s interest in egyptology, and left the bulk of his estate to his brother if he was burried within his family parish and to Mr. Hurst if he was not burried there. This bizarre will caused much confusion and trouble.

It’s fairly clear from the description—which also involved Mr. Jellicoe being the last person to see John Bellingham alive before his trip—that it was Mr. Jellicoe who committed the crime. Murderers really should be more careful than to find chance evidence themselves. (It was also clear that when “Mr Bellingham” called on his cousin after his trip, no one who would recognize him actually saw him.) What is unclear, though, is why the body was cut up into so many pieces, and why it was done with medical precision—it was severed in places an anatomist might sever it, and moreover it was done without any scratching on the bones. Why did the murderer take such care to dissect his victim?

Having some experience of butchering large vertebrates (deer), and hence being familiar with why one would cut the arm with the shoulder blade rather than at the ball joint, I partially guessed at the answer: the victim had done a good deal of rotting prior to his body being dissected. It turns out that the egyptology was more relevant to the plot than one might have suspected, and the body was not that of John Bellingham but instead a mummy which Bellingham had gifted to the British museum. John Bellingham’s corpse had been concealed within the cartonnage that concealed the mummy.

The grand reveal, here, was done with x-ray photography of the mummy, revealing various features of John Bellingham such as a tattoo of the eye of Osiris on his chest as well as silver wire in his kneecaps from when they were surgically repaired after being broken. I think that this was a much more exciting reveal in 1911, a mere 16 years after x-rays were discovered and while they were still very much in their infancy as a technology.

Overall, The Eye of Osiris is a somewhat strange book. It’s enjoyable to read, though I did find myself skimming some of the more melodramatic parts of the romantic plot. Dr. Jervis, who was the best developed character in the first book, barely appears. Even Dr. Thorndyke shows up less than he did in The Red Thumb Mark. The scientific evidence, which in this case essentially means the medical evidence—is emphasized to an enormous degree over all other kinds of evidence. I suppose that this makes a certain amount of sense with a doctor both as the actual writer and the fictional writer of the story, but medical evidence tends to be the least interesting sort of evidence there is, with the possible exception of accounting evidence. And then there is the very strange ending where the crime is revealed, not to be murder, but merely to be concealing the body of a man who died by accident, together with casting suspicion upon innocent people for the murder of the man who wasn’t murdered. This was a very strange decision, since the book goes to some lengths to show just how uncaring of his fellow creatures Mr. Jellicoe was, but then instead of the strange events being the plot of Jellicoe they are merely his best attempt to avoid being convicted of murder for the accidental death of his friend.

I should note, though, that The Eye of Osiris, like The Red Thumb Mark before it, has the occasional clever wordplay. In fact, it may have a bit more of it. For example, in a probate court in which an interested party is trying to get John Bellingham declared dead:

“…As the time which has elapsed since the testator was last seen alive is only two years, the application [to presume death] is based on the circumstances of the disappearance which were, in many respects, very singular, the most remarkable feature of that disappearance being, perhaps, its suddenness and completeness.”

Here the judge remarked in a still, small voice that, “It would, perhaps, have been even more remarkable if the testator had disappeared gradually and incompletely.”

I doubt that I would recommend The Eye of Osiris to anyone, though neither would I counsel anyone to not read it. It is pleasant enough and is, at least, curious as an element of history.

Fingerprints in Detective Stories

The history of fingerprints in detective stories is a curious one; their use in detective stories almost never parallels their use in real life. Which is to say, fingerprints in detective stories are always something to be worked around, while in real life they are a tool for catching criminals.

Fingerprints have been known for a very long time, of course, but their use to identify criminals is comparatively recent. Like most things the history of the technology around fingerprints is a long one, but we can suitably take it up with a book by Sir Francis Galton, entitled Finger Prints, in which he a published detailed statistical analysis showing that finger prints were sufficiently unique that they could be used as identification. That is, if a finger print found somewhere matched a finger print taken from a person, you could be confident that it was, in fact, that person’s fingerprint.

Details are a little hazy to my very cursory reading on the subject, but shortly after Paul-Jean Coulier developed a method of transferring fingerprints from objects to paper using iodine fuming we see fingerprints start to be used to identify criminals by police forces in 1901, with the first conviction for murder based upon fingerprint evidence in 1902.

It is not long after this that we see fingerprints start to appear in detective stories; the first I can think of off of the top of my head in the Sherlock Holmes story The Adventure of the Norwood Builder. In it, a bloody thumb mark is found near where Mr. McFarlane would have gotten his hat before leaving. The thumb print was a false one, of course, made from a cast of a thumb mark left in sealing wax. This discovery has nothing to do with the fingerprint itself, however—the criminal had put it there overnight, and Holmes had observed that there was no mark in that place the day before, proving McFarlane’s innocence.

The next instance I’m aware of—I’m sure that there are others before it—is the first Dr. Thorndyke story, The Red Thumb Mark, published in 1907. Here we have another fingerprint, again in blood, but this time the case revolves almost entirely around the thumb print. It turns out to be a forgery, which Thorndyke proves by careful examination of the thumb print under high magnification. The denouement, for so it might be called, is entirely about the process for using photo-lithographic techniques for creating a stamper capable of creating duplicates of a fingerprint.

I would like to skip forward, now, to 1921, and The Strange Case of Mr. Challoner. This features the detective Malcolm Sage, and he delivers a very curious lecture on the use of photographs and fingerprints. I will quote it in full, because it’s worth reading for the historical curiosity:

“There is no witness so sure as the camera,” remarked Malcolm Sage as he gazed from one to the other of two photographs before him, one representing him holding an automatic pistol to his own head, and the other in which Sir James was posing as a murderer.

“It is strange that it should be so neglected at Scotland Yard,” he added.

Silent and absorbed when engaged upon a problem, Malcolm Sage resented speech as a sick man resents arrowroot. At other times he seemed to find pleasure in lengthy monologues, invariably of a professional nature.

“But we use it a lot, Mr. Sage,” protested Inspector Wensdale.

“For recording the features of criminals,” was the retort. “No, Wensdale, you are obsessed by the finger-print heresy, quite regardless of the fact that none but an amateur ever leaves such a thing behind him, and the amateur is never difficult to trace.”

He paused for a moment; but the inspector made no comment.

“The two greatest factors in the suppression of crime,” continued Malcolm Sage, “are photography and finger-prints. Both are in use at Scotland Yard; but each in place of the other. Finger-prints are regarded as clues, and photography is a means of identification, whereas finger-prints are of little use except to identify past offenders, and photography is the greatest aid to the actual tracing of the criminal.”

By the later 1920s, fingerprints, where they exist at all, are almost exclusively red herrings, and I think by the 1930s they more-or-less never show up. Consider this scene from Gaudy Night, in 1935.

“Is there no material evidence to be obtained from an examination of the documents themseves?” asked Miss Pyke. “Speaking for myself, I am quite ready to have my fingerprints taken or to undergo any other kind of precautionary measure that may be considered necessary.”

“I’m afraid,” said Harriet,” the evidence of finger-prints isn’t quite so easy a matter as we make it appear in books. I mean, we could take finger-prints, naturally, from the S.C.R. and, possibly, from the scouts—though they wouldn’t like it much. But I should doubt very much whether rough scribbling-paper like this would show distinguishable prints. And besides—”

“Besides,” said the Dean, “every malefactor nowadays knows enough about finger-prints to wear gloves.”

There’s also a later scene where Lord Peter dusts a door for fingerprints.

“Am I really going to see finger-prints discovered?” asked the Dean.

“Why, of course,” said Wimsey. “It won’t tell us anything, but it impresses the spectator and inspires confidence…”

He went on to dust for fingerprints right up to the top of the door, which he said was “merely a shopwindow display of thoroughness and efficiency. All a matter of routine, as the policeman says. Your college is kept very well dusted; I congratulate you.” In fact, he suspected the use of strings over a door to manipulate things inside, and was checking to see if there were marks; at this late juncture checking for fingerprints is merely cover for some other, more useful, activity.

As we move out of the golden age and into more contemporary detective fiction, we tend to find that fingerprints either implicate an innocent person in a meeting with the victim prior to his death or else turn out to belong to the victim in very strange places. In short, they turn out to be either red herrings or further puzzles. (Obviously, I am painting with a very large brush, here.)

Curiously, while there seems to have been a spate of forged fingerprints shortly after the things became used as evidence, I can’t recall seeing or reading of any forged fingerprints in stories written in the last 100 years. Most of the time, fingerprints are like cell phones in horror stories—something the author feels duty bound to add a line or two explaining away, but otherwise things one would just as soon forget.

There is a close analogy in DNA evidence, which to some degree are the fingerprints of our day. Any idiot can get a lab result saying that person A was in place B where the crime was committed, and he should never have been in place B, therefore he committed the crime. This requires not a detective but merely a well-trained monkey. It is, therefore, entirely uninteresting. Fingerprints at least have the advantage that the amateur can take fingerprints almost as well as the professional; DNA evidence simply cannot be found by the amateur. DNA evidence is, therefore, merely annoying, from the perspective of the mystery author. It can be used, as fingerprints were, to frame innocent people, but not really better than any other evidence. Hair is a great place to take DNA from, but matching hair to a person is an age-old thing; finding the innocent suspect’s hair at the scene of the crime can be done without DNA evidence.

I know in my own stories I occasionally feel obliged to explain why there is no DNA evidence, though I’m always annoyed by it. To be fair, I also used DNA evidence in one of my stories, though only as potential clinching evidence that would have been worthless without knowing who to test (the test would have happened after the book was over).

I suspect that DNA evidence will eventually go the way of fingerprints—something that needs only the most cursory explanation to wave away, since the reader is as uninterested in it as the author is.

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.)