The Silent Witness

May 31, 2010

I like R. Austin Freeman. Really. He’s cool, Doctor Thorndyke is cool, The Eye of Osiris is extremely cool, etc.

The Silent Witness is ridiculous.

As point-of-view characters in mystery novels go, Dr. Thorndyke’s temporary assistants are…well, not great, but extremely unobjectionable. So I don’t have any problems with Dr. Humphrey Jardine personally. I do, however, have a few problems with the plot.

There are five separate attempts on Jardine’s life over the course of the book. Five. I mean, unless I’m forgetting one. In my opinion, that is too many, especially since it should be obvious to the villain that Jardine is not aware that he knows anything that might make him worth killing. All the frequent attempted murders only attract Dr. Thorndyke’s attention, and that’s a bad thing for a villain, because Dr. Thorndyke is the kind of guy who spends his free time making up crimes and imagining how he would investigate them in order to practice for the real ones.

So: too many murder attempts, not enough justification. Also: too many coincidences.

Dr. Jardine likes to take walks along the edge of Hampstead Heath. One evening, he comes across a dead body near an isolated cottage. He goes and finds a policeman, but when he comes back, the body is gone. The next day, he finds a gold reliquary near where the body had been. Later in the book, he happens to share a train compartment with someone who recognizes the reliquary.

There is a girl for Dr. Jardine to fall in love with. Her name is Sylvia Vyne, and she and Jardine often meet while sketching on the Heath. They get acquainted when Jardine helps Sylvia escape a stranger who insists that the crucifix she wears is his.

One day Dr. Jardine runs into his former teacher, Dr. Thorndyke, who asks him to take over for a week the practice of a Dr. Batson, who is going on vacation. Before he leaves, Dr. Batson signs a death certificate for a man who appears to have died of heart trouble. Jardine is present at the examination of the body, and somehow attracts the attention of the man’s nurse, Mrs. Samway, who proceeds to show up pretty much everywhere Jardine goes for the rest of the book.

Don’t those kind of sound like setups for three different mystery novels? And yet everything turns out to be related. And sure, that’s a thing that happens in mysteries, but it did seem like a bit much. However, I might have been reconciled to all the ridiculousness if Dr. Thorndyke had been given a little more page-time.

If you’d like to read a more favorable review, there’s one over at Mystery File.


  1. I have downloaded a lot of R. Austin Freeman’s books but haven’t actually read any yet. I guess I won’t be starting with this one, but you’ve definitely got me motivated to read him.

  2. Yeah, I think I’d start with The Red Thumb Mark, which is the first one. I mean, I actually did start with that, and it made a good first impression.

  3. I love the Dr. Thorndyke stories, but I’ll admit that there’s a huge reliance on coincidence in most of them. I think Freeman is at his best in the short stories.

    One thing I like about his stories: his heroines are generally intelligent and well-educated. For someone born in 1862, he’s also pretty good about recognising that they need to earn a living: they include a couple of museum researchers, and artists in metalwork and waxwork as well as of the ordinary kind.

    One thing I really dislike: there’s a nasty streak of anti-semitism in too many of the works. I read an interesting biography which mentioned that his father appears to have been an East End London tailor, a class that were particularly biased against East European immigrant competition. It’s a real blot on the books, though.

    • I haven’t read the short stories, but I do want to check them out.

      I agree with you about the heroines, and one thing I didn’t mention above was that the romance in this one was refreshingly…unromantic, I guess. Jardine just starts by thinking she’s pretty, slowly gets to know her and like her, and eventually realizes he’s in love with her.

      Sadly, antisemitism, racism, class-ism etc. are part of the territory here. And there’s no real way to deal with it, is there? I tend to try to put myself in a frame of mind to fit the time when a book was written, but unpleasant stereotypes are always going to be uncomfortable to read.

  4. It’s rare to find any English popular fiction of that era that doesn’t expose some fear of the “other” — whether it’s anti-semitism or the “yellow peril,” the English didn’t deal especially well with non-Anglo-Saxons. I wouldn’t call it a blot, necessarily; you just have to acknowledge it as part of the setting, like the class system or typhoid fever.

    • It’s interesting that Freeman’s time as a colonial administrator seem to have given him a less biased view of Africans. By modern standards, the character of Mr. Vanderpuye in ‘The Jacob Street Mystery’ is presented in a condescending way – he’s ‘a light-coloured, good-looking African gentleman’, but the narrator makes joking comments on his good teeth and inability to blush. Still, he’s a pupil of Dr. Thorndyke, and on friendly terms with him, and everyone in the book seems delighted with his portrait in barrister’s wig and gown. There’s a certain warmth in the book’s view of him that is totally lacking in any of Freeman’s Jewish characters that I can think of.

      • It might also be because of a lack of familiarity with Africans when he was growing up. It might be a little counter-intuitive, but probably antisemitism was so pervasive when Freeman was young that it seemed natural, while probably his opinions on Africans were mostly shaped by direct interactions.

    • It is an inextricable part of the setting, but it is frustrating. I think it’s actually easier to deal with racial stereotyping in books that focus on it, like Sax Rohmer’s stuff. With authors like Freeman, where racial issues aren’t the main point of the story, I think the stereotypes are kind of supposed to fade into the background, but with a modern perspective it’s hard to make them do that.

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