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.

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]


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

Thorndyke novels and story collections[edit]

  • The Red Thumb Mark (1907)
  • John Thorndyke's Cases (1909), published in the USA as Dr. Thorndyke's Cases [story collection]
  • The Eye of Osiris (1911), published in the USA as The Vanishing Man
  • The Mystery of 31 New Inn (1912)
  • The Singing Bone (1912), published in the USA as The Adventures of Dr. Thorndyke [story collection]
  • A Silent Witness (1914)
  • The Great Portrait Mystery (1918)
  • Helen Vardon's Confession (1922)
  • The Cat's Eye (1923)
  • Dr. Thorndyke's Casebook (1923), published in the USA as The Blue Scarab [story collection]
  • The Mystery of Angelina Frood (1924)
  • The Shadow of the Wolf (1925)
  • The Puzzle Lock (1925) [story collection]
  • The D'Arblay Mystery (1926)
  • A Certain Dr. Thorndyke (1927)
  • The Magic Casket (1927) [story collection]
  • As A Thief in the Night (1928)
  • The Famous Cases of Dr. Thorndyke (1928), published in the USA 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 USA 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 USA 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 USA as The Unconscious Witness

The short-story collections are:

  • 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).
  • Dr. Thorndyke's Casebook (1923) (published in the United States as The Blue Scarab)
  • The Puzzle Lock (1925)
  • The Magic Casket (1927)

These five collections contain together 38 from the below mentioned 40 stories. The two other Thorndyke stories were published in The Great Portrait Mystery and other Stories (1918). This book contains 7 stories, but only two about Thorndyke. The titles of the two Thorndyke stories are The Missing Mortgagee and Percival Bland's Proxy.

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."

There also exist two other Thorndyke stories, which were uncollected during his lifetime. 31, New Inn (circa 1905) is a short story, later completely rewritten as a full-length novel, The Mystery of 31 New Inn. Other people suggest 1911 as year of publication. The other short story is The Dead Hand (1912) that was later developed into the novel The Shadow of the Wolf.
31, New Inn was published in The Best Dr. Thorndyke Detective Stories (1973), edited by E.F. Bleiler, and in volume I of the Freeman omnibus, published by Battered Silicon Dispatch Box. The Dead Hand was published in The Dead Hand and Other Uncollected Stories, edited by Douglas G. Greene and Tony Medawar (Shelburne, Ontario: The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, 1999). The Dead Hand is also published in Detection by Gaslight, 14 Victorian detective stories, an anthology by Douglas G. Greene (Dover. 1997).

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) [7]
  • From a Surgeon's Diary, with John Pitcairn, as Clifford Ashdown (1904-5 in Cassell's Magazine; first book publication, 1977) [8]

Other novels and collections[edit]

  • The Golden Pool: A Story of a Forgotten Mine (1905) [9]
  • The Unwilling Adventurer (1913)
  • The Uttermost Farthing (1914 in the USA, only; first British publication, 1920, as "A Savant's Vendetta") [10]
  • The Exploits of Danby Croker (1916)
  • The Surprising Experiences of Mr Shuttlebury Cobb (1927)
  • Flighty Phyllis (1928)
  • The Queen's Treasure, with John Pitcairn, as Clifford Ashdown (written around 1905/6, but not published until 1975) [11]


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 USA 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.[12]

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


  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. ^ Donaldson, 2nd ed., p.278
  8. ^ Donaldson, 2nd ed., p.280
  9. ^ English Catalogue of Books
  10. ^ Donaldson, 2nd ed., p.253
  11. ^ Donaldson, 2nd ed., p. 67 & 279
  12. ^ "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 Thorndike, Norman Donaldson (Bowling Green, Ohio, 1971)

External links[edit]