R. Austin Freeman

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Richard Austin Freeman (11 April 1862 – 28 September 1943) was a British writer of detective stories, mostly featuring the medico-legal forensic investigator Dr. Thorndyke. He claimed to have invented the inverted detective story (a crime fiction in which the commission of the crime is described at the beginning, usually including the identity of the perpetrator, with the story then describing the detective's attempt to solve the mystery). Freeman used some of his early experiences as a colonial surgeon in his novels.

Many of the Dr. Thorndyke stories involve genuine, but often quite arcane, points of scientific knowledge, from areas such as tropical medicine, metallurgy and toxicology.

Early life[edit]

Austin Freeman was the youngest of the five children of tailor Richard Freeman and Ann Maria Dunn. He first trained as an apothecary and then studied medicine at Middlesex Hospital, qualifying in 1887. The same year he married Annie Elizabeth, with whom he had two sons. He entered the Colonial Service and was sent to Accra on the Gold Coast.


In 1891 he returned to London after suffering from blackwater fever but was unable to find a permanent medical position, and so decided to settle down in Gravesend and earn money from writing fiction, while continuing to practise medicine. His first stories were written in collaboration with John James Pitcairn (1860–1936), medical officer at Holloway Prison, and published under the nom de plume "Clifford Ashdown". His first Thorndyke story, The Red Thumb Mark, was published in 1907, and shortly afterwards he pioneered the inverted detective story, in which the identity of the criminal is shown from the beginning. Some short stories with this feature were collected in The Singing Bone in 1912. During the First World War he served as a captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps and afterwards produced a Thorndyke novel almost every year until his death in 1943. The house where he died, 94 Windmill Street in Gravesend, is now Thorndyke's Nursing Home.

Freeman claimed to have invented the inverted detective story in his 1912 collection of short stories The Singing Bone. "Some years ago I devised, as an experiment, an inverted detective story in two parts. The first part was a minute and detailed description of a crime, setting forth the antecedents, motives, and all attendant circumstances. The reader had seen the crime committed, knew all about the criminal, and was in possession of all the facts. It would have seemed that there was nothing left to tell, but I calculated that the reader would be so occupied with the crime that he would overlook the evidence. And so it turned out. The second part, which described the investigation of the crime, had to most readers the effect of new matter."[1]

Political views[edit]

Freeman held conservative political views.[2] In his 1921 book Social Decay and Regeneration Freeman put forth the view that mechanization had flooded Britain with poor-quality goods and created a "homogenized, restless, unionized working class".[2] Freeman supported the eugenics movement and argued that people with "undesirable" biological traits should be prevented from breeding through "segregation, marriage restriction, and sterilization".[3] The book also attacked the British Labour movement and criticised the British government for permitting immigrants (whom Freeman referred to as "Sub-Man") to settle in Britain. Social Decay and Regeneration referred to the Russian Revolution as "the Russian catastrophe" and argued society needed to protected from " degenerates of the destructive or " Bolshevik " type." [4] Sections of Social Decay and Regeneration were reprinted in Eugenics Review, the journal of the British Eugenics Society.[5]

Critical reception[edit]

"Indicative of his power is the fact that Mr. Polton Explains, in some ways his best novel, was written in part in a bomb shelter in 1939, when Freeman was 77 years old. ... For the first twenty-five years of his career, at least, he dominated the world of British detective fiction. ... Freeman was always in the forefront of the form. Today, with Chesterton, who is remembered for other reasons, he is one of the very few Edwardian detective story writers who are still read."[6]

"Raymond Chandler, whose essay 'The Simple Art of Murder' did much toward demolishing the classical detective story, had this to say in a letter to Hamish Hamilton, the British publisher: 'This man Austin Freeman is a wonderful performer. He has no equal in his genre, and he is also a much better writer than you might think, if you were superficially inclined, because in spite of the immense leisure of his writing, he accomplishes an even suspense which is quite unexpected ... There is even a gaslight charm about his Victorian love affairs, and those wonderful walks across London ...' Most of us agree with Chandler."[6]

In Bloody Murder, Julian Symons wrote: "... [his] talents as a writer were negligible. Reading a Freeman story is very much like chewing dry straw."[7]


  • Travels and Life in Ashanti and Jaman (1898)
  • Social Decay and Regeneration (1921) (with an introduction by Havelock Ellis)

Books featuring Dr John Thorndyke[edit]

Italian edition of the novel The D'Arblay Mystery (1926), Mondadori, 1931


  • The Red Thumb Mark (1907)
  • The Eye of Osiris (1911), published in the United States as The Vanishing Man
  • The Mystery of 31 New Inn (1912)
  • A Silent Witness (1914)
  • Helen Vardon's Confession (1922)
  • The Cat's Eye (1923). Serialised, Nottingham Journal (1923)
  • The Mystery of Angelina Frood (1924)
  • The Shadow of the Wolf (1925)
  • The D'Arblay Mystery (1926)
  • A Certain Dr. Thorndyke (1927)
  • As A Thief in the Night (1928)
  • The Famous Cases of Dr. Thorndyke (1928), published in the United States as The Dr. Thorndyke Omnibus [These two volumes differ in the number and arrangement of stories].
  • Mr. Pottermack's Oversight (1930)
  • Pontifex, Son and Thorndyke (1931)
  • When Rogues Fall Out (1932), published in the United States as Dr. Thorndyke's Discovery
  • Dr. Thorndyke Intervenes (1933)
  • For the Defence: Dr. Thorndyke (1934)
  • The Penrose Mystery (1936)
  • Felo de Se (1937), published in the United States as Death At The Inn
  • The Stoneware Monkey (1938)
  • Mr. Polton Explains (1940)
  • Dr. Thorndyke's Crime File (1941) -- omnibus including "Meet Dr. Thorndyke" (essay), The Eye of Osiris (novel), "The Art of the Detective Story" (essay), The Mystery of Angelina Frood (novel), "5A King's Bench Walk" (essay by P. M. Stone), and Mr. Pottermack's Oversight (novel).
  • The Jacob Street Mystery (1942), published in the United States as The Unconscious Witness

Short-story collections[edit]

  • John Thorndyke's Cases (1909) (published in the United States as Dr. Thorndyke's Cases)
  • The Singing Bone (1912) (published in the United States as The Adventures of Dr. Thorndyke)
  • The Great Portrait Mystery and other Stories (1918) NB: This contains seven stories of which two feature Thorndyke: The Missing Mortgagee; and Percival Bland's Proxy
  • Dr. Thorndyke's Casebook (1923) (published in the United States as The Blue Scarab)
  • The Puzzle Lock (1925)
  • The Magic Casket (1927)
  • The Best Dr. Thorndyke Detective Stories (1973). Edited by E.F. Bleiler. (Includes 31, New Inn, believed to have been written between 1905-1911 and later expanded to novel length), which was also published in volume I of the Freeman omnibus, published by Battered Silicon Dispatch Box
  • The Dead Hand and Other Uncollected Stories, edited by Douglas G. Greene and Tony Medawar (Shelburne, Ontario: The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, 1999). (Includes The Dead Hand, believed to have been written in 1912 and later expanded to novel length as The Shadow of the Wolf; the short story was also published in Detection by Gaslight, 14 Victorian detective stories, an anthology by Douglas G. Greene (Dover. 1997).

Two different omnibus editions of the collected Dr. Thorndyke short stories exist. The British edition is R. Austin Freeman, The Famous Cases of Dr. Thorndyke: Thirty-seven of His Criminal Investigations as set down by R. Austin Freeman (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1929 and later reprintings). The American edition is R. Austin Freeman, The Dr. Thorndyke Omnibus: 38 of His Criminal Investigations as set down by R. Austin Freeman (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1932 and later reprintings). The American edition includes one story, "The Mandarin's Pearl," printed in the first Thorndyke short-story collection, John Thorndyke's Cases, but omitted from the British omnibus. Two other stories, though also appearing in the first Dr. Thorndyke short-story collection, John Thorndyke's Cases, were omitted from the British and American editions of the omnibus collection: "The Man with the Nailed Shoes" and "A Message from the Deep Sea."

Books featuring Romney Pringle[edit]


  • The Adventures of Romney Pringle, with John Pitcairn, as Clifford Ashdown (1902)
  • The Further Adventures of Romney Pringle, with John Pitcairn, as Clifford Ashdown (1903 in Cassell's Magazine; first book publication, 1970) [8]
  • From a Surgeon's Diary, with John Pitcairn, as Clifford Ashdown (1904-5 in Cassell's Magazine; first book publication, 1977) [9]

Short stories[edit]

Other novels and collections[edit]

  • The Golden Pool: A Story of a Forgotten Mine (1905) [10]
  • The Unwilling Adventurer (1913)
  • The Uttermost Farthing (1914 in the US, only; first British publication, 1920, as "A Savant's Vendetta") [11]
  • The Exploits of Danby Croker (1916)
  • The Surprising Experiences of Mr Shuttlebury Cobb (1927) Freeman's original title was The Surprising Experiences of Solomon Pike
  • Flighty Phyllis (1928)
  • The Queen's Treasure, with John Pitcairn, as Clifford Ashdown (written around 1905/6, but not published until 1975) [12]

Uncollected short stories[edit]

  • The Mutiny on the Speedwell. Novel Magazine, May 1914 (Jack Osmond). See also A Certain Dr Thorndyke
  • The Gun Runner. Novel Magazine, June 1914 (Jack Osmond). See also A Certain Dr Thorndyke


  • The Interior of the Gold Coast. Macmillan's Magazine, June 1899
  • In the London Docks. Living London, January 1902
  • Hospital London. Living London, June 1902. Reprinted Living London, December 1902
  • Afflicted London. Living London, September 1902. Reprinted Living London, October 1905
  • The Coastwise Lights of England. Cassell's Magazine, November 1902
  • London below Bridge. Living London, December 1902. Reprinted Living London, January 1906
  • The Royal Yacht. Cassell's Magazine, April 1903
  • A Thames Sailing Barge Match. Cassell's Magazine, September 1903
  • Small Yacht Racing. Cassell's Magazine, May 1904
  • The Sentinels of the Port of London. Cassell's Magazine, October 1905
  • Down the River. Cassell's Magazine, January 1906
  • The Tightening Grip. Straits Times, 5 November 1917
  • The Art of the Detective Story. The Nineteenth Century and After, May 1924
  • The Pendulum. Todmorden Advertiser and Hebden Bridge Newsletter, 23 March 1928
  • An Englishman's Rights. Nottingham Evening Post, 28 February 1929
  • The Two Aspects of Liberty. Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail, 10 April 1933
  • Democracy to Dictatorship. Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail, 3 March 1934 (Freeman's original title was "From Democracy to Dictatorship")
  • Liberty and Property. Nottingham Evening Post, 29 November 1934
  • The Return of the Autocrat - Orders in Council. Linlithgow Gazette, 3 April 1936
  • What Has become of Democracy?. Mid-Sussex Times, 28 April 1936
  • Liberty and Intelligence. Portsmouth Evening News, 16 October 1936
  • Does Dullness Create Dictatorship?. Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail, 17 October 1936
  • Preservation of Liberty. Portsmouth Evening News, 18 June 1937
  • Liberty and Reciprocity. Linlithgowshire Gazette, 18 June 1937
  • On Being a Good Neighbour. Kirkintilloch Herald, 23 June 1937
  • Liberty and Physique. Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail, 29 January 1938
  • Enemies of Liberty. West London Observer, 2 December 1938
  • War is Destructive of Liberty. Sunderland Daily Echo & Shipping Gazette, 14 July 1939
  • Liberty and Peace. West London Observer, 21 July 1939
  • Individualism and War. Falkirk Herald, 18 October 1939
  • War Sacrifices for a Purpose. Grimsby Daily Telegraph, 23 November 1939
  • Hard Cases and Bad Law. Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail, 4 April 1940
  • Liberties Surrendered for Future Freedom. Portsmouth Evening News, 12 September 1940 [Also published as Hitlerism 'On Appro.', Freeman's original title, Motherwell Times, 13 September 1940]
  • Freedom of the Citizen. Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail, 13 September 1940
  • Good Breeding - The Importance of Eugenics. Thanet Advertiser, 25 April 1941
  • Eugenics and Liberty. Falkirk Herald, 23 April 1941; also published as ‘’Good Breeding; The Importance of Eugenics’’. Thanet Adviser, 25 April 1941
  • What of the Future?. Falkirk Herald, 29 October 1941
  • The Passing of Personal Liberty. Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail, 24 April 1942; also published as The Passing of Personal Liberty towards the Human Ant-Hill. West London Observer, 1 May 1942. (Freeman's original title was The Passing of Freedom)
  • Liberty and Equality. Falkirk Herald, 9 September 1942
  • The Medical Profession. Mid-Sussex Times, 30 December 1942 (Freeman's original title was The Socialisation of the Medical Profession)
  • The Doppelganger. Publication unknown
  • The Economics of Liberty. Publication unknown
  • The Militant's Strategy. Publication unknown
  • Is Fingerprint Evidence Fallible?. Publication unknown
  • His Majesty's Savings. Publication unknown
  • Hot Boiled Beans. Publication unknown
  • The Renegades. Publication unknown
  • The Three Wishes. Publication unknown
  • The Unauthorised Raiders. Publication unknown

Unconfirmed stories[edit]

[The records of Freeman's agent, A P Watt, identify the following items as having been published but do not provide any further details]

  • The Adventures of Jack Osmond Publication unknown. See also A Certain Dr Thorndyke
  • The Auchtermuchtie Burglary Publication unknown
  • The Automatic Boat Publication unknown
  • La Belle Anglaise Publication unknown
  • The Cavern Publication unknown
  • A Corpse in the Case Publication unknown
  • A Crusader's Misadventures Publication unknown
  • The Haarschneide Machine Publication unknown
  • Mr Pordle's Homecoming Publication unknown


Television Adaptations[edit]

A short series featuring Dr Thorndyke was produced by the BBC in 1964, entitled Thorndyke. The title character was played by veteran British actor Peter Copley.

Based on the stories written by R Austin Freeman, the episodes, all of which except the pilot are missing from the BBC archive, were as follows:

  • The Case Of Oscar Brodski (Pilot — as part of BBC series "Detective')
  • The Old Lag
  • A Case of Premeditation
  • The Mysterious Visitor
  • The Case of Phyllis Annesley
  • Percival Bland's Brother
  • The Puzzle Lock

Three stories were also adapted as part of the Thames TV series The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes in 1971-3. These were:

  • A Message From The Deep Sea (from the 1st series and starring John Neville as Thorndyke)
  • The Assyrian Rejuvenator (1st series, starring Donald Sinden as Romney Pringle)
  • The Moabite Cipher (2nd series, starring Barrie Ingham as Thorndyke)

Both series are available on DVD — in the UK from Network Video and in the United States from Acornmedia.

Radio adaptation[edit]

Starting in 2011 the BBC aired radio adaptations of some of the Thorndyke short stories, Thorndyke: Forensic Investigator on BBC Radio 4 Extra.[13]

Series 1[edit]

November 2011 read by Jim Norton

  1. A Mysterious Visitor
  2. The Puzzle Lock
  3. A Mystery of the Sand Hills
  4. Pathologist to the Rescue
  5. The Secret of the Urn
  6. Pandora's Box

Series 2[edit]

March 2013 read by William Gaminara

  1. The Stolen Ingots
  2. Rex v Burnaby
  3. The Stalking Horse

In popular culture[edit]


  • In Donna Andrews's Owl's Well That Ends Well, a near-mint first-edition copy of The Uttermost Farthing provides the motive for the murder.


  1. ^ This is a quote from an essay by Freeman entitled "The Art of the Detective Story", which is itself quoted in The Best Dr. Thorndyke Detective Stories (Dover, New York, 1973), in the introduction by E. F. Bleiler.
  2. ^ a b McLaren, Angus (2012). Reproduction by Design: Sex, Robots, Trees, and Test-Tube Babies in Interwar Britain. University of Chicago Press. pp. 64–5. ISBN 0-226-56069-4.
  3. ^ McLaren, 2012, (p. 71).
  4. ^ R. Austin Freeman, "Social Decay and Regeneration", Houghton Mifflin, 1921(p.246).
  5. ^ Stone, Dan (2002). Breeding Superman: Nietzsche, Race and Eugenics in Edwardian and Interwar Britain. Liverpool University Press. pp. 113–14, 162. ISBN 0-85323-987-8.
  6. ^ a b R. Austin Freeman, The Best Dr. Thorndyke Detective Stories, 1973, Dover (New York), ISBN 0-486-20388-3, from the introduction by E. F. Bleiler
  7. ^ Julian Symons: Bloody Murder, 1972, Faber and Faber (London), ISBN 0-571-09465-1
  8. ^ Donaldson, 2nd ed., p.278
  9. ^ Donaldson, 2nd ed., p.280
  10. ^ English Catalogue of Books
  11. ^ Donaldson, 2nd ed., p.253
  12. ^ Donaldson, 2nd ed., p. 67 & 279
  13. ^ "Thorndyke: Forensic Investigator" BBC Radio 4 Extra Programmes bbc.co.uk


  • Murder Will Out: The Detective in Fiction, T. J. Binyon (Oxford, 1989)
  • The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes: Early Detective Stories, ed. Hugh Greene (Penguin, 1971)
  • In Search of Doctor Thorndyke, Norman Donaldson (Bowling Green, Ohio, 1971)
  • Collecting R. Austin Freeman, David Ian Chapman (Highfield Press, Aldershot, 2018)

External links[edit]