Monday, 11 January 2010

"The Jacob Street Mystery" by Richard Austin Freeman

Richard Austin Freeman was an interesting character. Born in 1862 he qualified as both a physician and a surgeon. He also served in the colonial service in Africa, apparently being involved in some Richard Hannay type derring-do which earned the thanks of a grateful nation, only to be invalided out with recurrent fever. From 1919 until his death in 1943 he supported himself as a full time writer.

The first thing to note about Freeman's style is that does not feel at all dated. Not only is the writing itself easily accessible to a modern reader, but the content is also surprisingly (perhaps even daringly) so. There is open speculation, for example, at one point in The Jacob Street Mystery as to whether a particular couple are sexual partners rather than just good friends - especially daring considering that the woman in question is known to be married to someone else.

He was considered by many to be the inventor of the modern detective novel, though as his first book was not published until 1911 this may be open to question. He is also credited with having created the only really credible "scientific" investigator, in his protagonist, Dr John Thorndyke.

In The Jacob Street Mystery Thorndyke puts in a very late appearance, the story unfolding through the eyes of various narrators until the good doctor pops up towards the end and solves the mystery, which revolves around a question of identity.

This is a well written book, and a well crafted story. Sad to relate, Camden appear to have only one book by Freeman in their entire library system. "Sad" because Freeman is definitely a writer who leaves one wanting more. In particular, I am intrigued by the knowledge that he wrote a number of books in which the identity of the criminal is made known at the beginning, and the story then focuses on the investigation process. This is, of course, a truly "modern" concept.

He also wrote mainstream novels, travel books and social commentary, plus some short stories under the name Clifford Ashdown. One to look out for in second hand book shops.

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