Thursday, November 10, 2016

R. Austin Freeman's A Silent Witness

A Silent Witness is an early detective novel by R. Austin Freeman (it was published in 1914) and it contains most of the features that characterise his work.

The story is narrated by Dr Humphrey Jardine, a newly qualified medico, and it concerns events that occurred some years earlier. Dr Jardine has a rather strange experience Hampstead Heath. He discovers a dead body in a lane. He goes off to fetch a constable and on his return the body has vanished. Jardine might be young and newly qualified but he is a doctor and he is quite confident of his ability to tell if a man is dead or not. Well, reasonably confident - he did only have time to make a cursory examination. In any case the man, dead or not, has vanished and the police clearly believe that Dr Jardine was mistaken and that the man was merely insensible and has now decamped. There’s not much the young doctor can do about and a few weeks later he has more or less put the matter out of mind.

Jardine had been one of Dr John Thorndyke’s students and Thornydke has found the young man a position as locum tenens for another of his former students, a Dr Batson. Dr Batson has been called away from London for a brief period but before he departs he asks Jardine to accompany him on a routine call to provide a death certificate for a patient who had been suffering from heart problems. Jardine is a little shocked by Dr Batson’s casual approach to the matter but there’s no reason for any suspicions about the death.

These two events were mildly disquieting but things are about to take a very dramatic turn. There is a very serious and rather spectacular attempt on Jardine’s life, and there is no doubt whatsoever that this was indeed attempted murder.

At this point, quite by accident, Dr Thorndyke becomes involved. Thorndyke is not the sort of man who tolerates people trying to murder his former students and he is also convinced that there is a great deal more going on here. Unfortunately, while it is clear that someone thinks Jardine is in possession of evidence of some serious crime and is trying to silence him it is not at all clear what this crime might have been - Jardine himself has not the slightest idea. Dr Thorndyke will not only have to unravel the mystery, he will have to take steps to keep young Jardine alive.

While Conan Doyle invented the scientific detective it was Freeman who perfected the concept. Dr Thorndyke is not merely a detective who possesses some amateur scientific knowledge (like Sherlock Holmes), he is a thoroughgoing scientific specialist. He is an expert in the field of medical jurisprudence. Dr Thorndyke is not a policeman, nor is he a private detective, nor is he an amateur sleuth. He only becomes involved in cases in which his very specialised expertise is called for. 

As a result Freeman’s detective stories do not focus all that heavily on the question of the identity of the criminal. In fact Freeman invented the inverted detective story in which the criminal’s identity is revealed at the very beginning, the interest of the story being provided by Thorndyke’s investigative methods. This book is not an inverted detective story but it is certainly much more concerned with the investigation than with the killer’s identity. In fact it’s not hard to guess who the criminal is. The challenge for Dr Thorndyke (and for the reader) is to figure out exactly what the crime was and how it was carried out, and to find the proof. 

In this case the method by which Thorndyke does this is extraordinarily clever and original. Whether it is scientific plausible or not I have no idea but it’s a truly wonderful idea.

One interesting feature of this novel is that problems with eyesight provide not one but two crucial plot points. Freeman himself was a doctor who worked for a time at an ophthalmic hospital so this is perhaps not so surprising!

Thorndyke is a formidable but rather amiable character. He is a man who is used to having his instructions carried out to the letter but his authority comes from his complete self-assurance and his ability to inspire confidence in his subordinates. Those subordinates, Jervis and Polton, are disciples rather than mere subordinates. Thorndyke is also a fundamentally decent and kindly man. His manners are impeccable and it’s noteworthy that his courtesy extends to everyone he encounters regardless of social class. 

Thorndyke is brilliant of course. He undoubtedly derives a great deal of intellectual enjoyment from his work but he also has a very strong sense of duty. He has great gifts and they bring with them a responsibility to serve society.

This book does have its flaws. The plot, while ingenious, relies way too much on coincidence. There are serious pacing problems and the romantic subplot is an unnecessary distraction. On the other hand there’s a surprising amount of action and suspense, and both are handled with energy and flair. We get a real sense that Jardine is in very real and very immediate danger.

With his Edwardian novels Freeman pretty much established the template for the golden age of detective fiction - an elaborate plot with the reader being given a fair chance to match wits with the detective hero. And his major clues are certainly hidden in plain sight (even if some of the minor clues do rely on Thorndyke’s specialised knowledge).

A Silent Witness is not in the same league as Freeman’s masterpieces from the same era, The Eye of Osiris and The Mystery of 31 New Inn, but its flaws are balanced by some considerable strengths and it’s still worth seeking out. Recommended.

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