The Red Thumb Mark/The Eye of OsirisJanuary 11, 2009
Apparently a guy named Julian Symons once described reading R. Austin Freeman’s Dr. Thorndyke books as being “very much like chewing dry straw.” I have now read two Dr. Thorndyke mysteries, and I kind of want to smack Mr. Symons, because Dr. Thorndyke is awesome, and Freeman’s style, while dry, is also very witty. I could take or leave the formulaic romances that feature so prominently in the books, but I can also see that they’re necessary to the flow of the stories. And while I do find it difficult to believe that even in the 1910s people were not able to tell two-year-old bones from two thousand-year-old ones, I’m no expert on that sort of thing. Otherwise, I found no major faults in The Red Thumb Mark and The Eye of Osiris. And the minor ones generally added to my enjoyment.
In The Red Thumb Mark, we are introduced to Dr. John Evelyn Thorndyke, a professional expert witness/medical detective. He knows everything, which is kind of cool. He takes on the case of Reuben Hornby, who has been accused of a theft based on his bloody fingerprint having been found at the scene of the crime. The police feel that this clinches the case; Dr. Thorndyke thinks otherwise.
The story is narrated by a Dr. Jervis, a friend of Thorndyke’s who has fallen on hard times and is employed by Thorndyke to assist him on the case. There is also a young lady involved, and it is Jervis’ job to fall in love with her. Otherwise, he’s a smarter than average Watson, who is actually helpful to Thorndyke in solving the mystery, and not in the way that Hastings is ‘helpful’ to Hercule Poirot. The book culminates with a long but fully justified courtroom scene in which Reuben is cleared of all wrongdoing and Dr. Jervis realizes that Thorndyke is the most attractive man he has ever met.
The Eye of Osiris has a much sillier title than The Red Thumb Mark, but the story itself is only slightly more silly. It concerns the peculiar will of John Bellingham, as well as Mr. Bellingham’s mysterious disappearance. The mystery hinges on determining when Bellingham was last seen, as well as the inability of anyone concerned to distinguish Bellingham’s skeleton from that of an Egyptian mummy. This time narration/romance is taken care of by Dr. Paul Berkeley, one of Thorndyke’s former students. Berkeley isn’t as entertaining as Jervis, but the villain is immeasurably more fun than the one on The Red Thumb Mark (my saying which may do more to give away the solution of the mystery than the bit about the skeletons).