Tuesday, April 20, 2021

R. Austin Freeman’s The D’Arblay Mystery

R. Austin Freeman’s The D’Arblay Mystery was published in 1926 and it’s another Dr Thorndyke mystery. Although written in 1926 it tells of events that occurred twenty years in the past.

A young doctor named Stephen Gray is happily tramping through the woods, hoping to spend a pleasant few hours collecting specimens from a shallow pond (being a young man whose interests are both scientific and medical). He sees a very attractive young woman in the woods. She seems to be searching for something but it is hardly any of his business. Shortly thereafter, to his horror, he discovers the body of a middle-aged man in the pond. He sets off towards the police station but encounters the young woman again. She informs him that she is searching for her father who failed to return home on the previous night. It transpires that the body in the pond is that of her father, Julius D’Arblay.

The circumstances point to suicide but they do not rule out foul play.

Gray is a good-natured kindly young man and when he discovers that the young woman (Marion D’Arblay) has now lost her only surviving relative he feels that he should, as a gentleman, do something for her. As it happens he is peculiarly well-placed to help her as he was in the not-too-recent past a student of the renowned specialist in medical jurisprudence, Dr John Thorndyke. He resolves to retain Dr Thorndyke’s services to investigate the case.

Which turns out to be a good idea. The post-mortem (at which Dr Thorndyke assists) proves that Julius D’Arblay was murdered. Murdered by an injection of aconitine. There is no possibility whatsoever of suicide.

The police investigation makes little progress. The police really don’t have much to go on. Dr Thorndyke admits that it’s going to be a difficult case but he believes there are some useful clues. Several items were found at the bottom of the pond, including a gold guinea of the reign of Charles II. D’Arblay had been a sculptor. The murder method suggested a number of things about the murderer.

Two more things soon become obvious. One is that Dr Gray has fallen under Marion D’Arblay’s spell. The second is that whatever business the murderer had with Julius D’Arblay that business is not yet finished.

Not everyone enjoys Freeman’s prose. One thing you have to remember is that although this novel was published in 1926 Freeman is in fact a writer of the Edwardian era. His first forays into the field of detective fiction were made in 1901 when the earliest of the excellent Romney Pringle stories were written (and I highly recommend the adventures of that delightful rogue). Freeman was still writing in the early 1940s but not surprisingly his prose style remained somewhat Edwardian. Which, personally, I rather like. Freeman is nowhere near as dull as some of his detractors would have you believe. In fact I don’t find him dull at all. His prose isn’t flamboyant but there’s plenty of keen observation of human nature and there’s some fine descriptive writing. And Raymond Chandler was a fan.

There’s always a problem for a writer who creates a memorable series character when a series becomes a long-running one. At the time of Dr Thorndyke’s earliest cases he is clearly not a very young man. His professional eminence suggest a man in his forties. By 1926 Thorndyke would logically have been twenty years older, and Freeman clearly did not want Thorndyke to be an elderly man. Most writers have solved this problem by fudging their heroes’ ages. Freeman solves the problem by a simpler and more direct method. He sets his story in the Edwardian era. That was a bit of a risk. It was clearly going to give the novel a slightly old-fashioned feel. I think it works. Dr Thorndyke is man of the Edwardian era and that’s where he seems comfortable and Freeman’s slightly old-fashioned prose and penchant for rather formal dialogue perfectly suits the setting.

I haven’t read any of Freeman’s other Dr Thorndyke mysteries from the 1920s and 1930s (although I’ve read most of his pre-WW1 stories) so I have no idea whether those books have Edwardian or contemporary settings.

Freeman famously invented the inverted detective story. The D’Arblay Mystery is not an inverted mystery but as with all of Freeman’s books the interest lies mostly in the manner in which Thorndyke solves the case rather than in the solution itself.

The D’Arblay Mystery is a story of deception and the book’s main strength is the extreme cleverness of the deceptions. These deceptions could have a bit far-fetched but Freeman makes them seem entirely plausible.

Dr Thorndyke has the genius, and perhaps some of the arrogance, of Sherlock Holmes but without the idiosyncrasies. He can be a little distant and even taciturn but he’s fundamentally even-natured. Dr Thorndyke is not a man who loses his temper.

The D’Arblay Mystery has a wonderfully clever plot. Even when we feel we’re starting to figure out who committed the crimes there’s still the mystery of how on earth the deceptions could have been worked. Highly recommended.

I’ve reviewed several of Freeman’s earlier books including A Silent Witness (1914), The Mystery of 31 New Inn (1912), The Eye of Osiris (1911) and some of the early Dr Thorndyke short stories.

If you’re a fan of Dr Thorndyke I strongly recommend seeking out the 1970s Rivals of Sherlock Holmes TV series which includes adaptations of two Thorndyke stories (and it’s a great series overall).

I’m pleased to report that JJ at The Invisible Event gave the The D’Arblay Mystery a glowing review as well.


  1. A nice comprehensive review. It almost makes me want to try Freeman again. Given that it's not an inverted mystery, I just might. (I overdosed on COLUMBO when I was younger, and I never recovered.)

    1. I'm not the biggest fan of inverted mysteries either which is why I picked this particular title.

      I believe that quite a few of Freeman's 1920s novels are not inverted mysteries.