Friday’s Forgotten Book: The Jacob Street Mystery by R. Austin Freeman

Richard Austin Freeman (1862-1943) was an English doctor who created the fictional forensic scientist Dr John Thorndyke. Freeman was born in London and received a medical degree from Middlesex Hospital Medical College. He moved to the Gold Coast of Africa to work but returned to England after seven years. He began writing fiction in 1902. His work has been exhaustively analyzed. See for instance the Classic Mystery Blog: https://classicmystery.blog/ and the Golden Age Detection website: http://gadetection.pbworks.com/w/page/7930620/Freeman%2C%20R%20Austin. See also Mike Grost’s essay: http://mikegrost.com/freeman.htm.

His last full-length Thorndyke novel was The Jacob Street Mystery (Hodder & Stoughton, 1942), published in the U.S. as The Unconscious Witness (Dodd, Mead, 1942). Interestingly enough, Thorndyke does not make an appearance in this book until about two-thirds through. In its leisurely beginning landscape artist Tom Pedley is introduced. Living quietly in a small studio Pedley keeps largely to himself and focuses on his work. Almost immediately Thorndyke’s laboratory assistant Mr. Polton appears and through him Pedley gives a bit of information he didn’t realize he had about an unsolved murder.

Awhile later a Mrs. Schiller moves nearby and makes a determined assault on Pedley’s time and attention, then transfers her attention to one of Pedley’s customers, an African lawyer who is sitting for his portrait. They spend a good deal of time together. Mrs. Schiller goes to visit friends unexpectedly and is not heard of again. A few weeks later the body of an unknown woman is found in her deserted rooms. And here, after about a third of the book, is where the usual activities associated with a mystery begin.

Ordinarily I would have been muttering under my breath about the slowness of the pace, if I was even still reading, but the long lead-in is pleasant. The details about oil painting and Pedley’s solitary life are so authentic I suspect they come from first-hand experience. I had never heard of a haybox, from which Pedley extracts his meals, so that was cause for a bit of research.

Freeman’s representation of a man of color is intriguing, as the African is given a position of responsibility and is treated with great respect. The friendship and possible romance between the married Caucasian woman and African man is unusual for the time. Pedley is concerned about the outcome but no other character mentions it.

Despite its general readability, this last Thorndyke has some peculiarities that grated. For instance, some form of the word “crinkle” is used in association with Mr. Polton eight times. Yes, I counted. He crinkles shyly or knowingly or slyly or deferentially or cautiously. The investigation at times stretched credulity. A path covered with leaves that still shows footsteps clearly weeks afterward is hard to envision, yet much is made of it. Nonetheless, I rate this story highly, mostly because of the characters and creative plot. Readers who enjoy courtroom fireworks or criminal forensics will especially want to look it up.

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