As part of my The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes Project I’m reading other Victorian (and occasionally Edwardian) detectives. I decided to start with R. Austin Freeman who wrote the Dr. Thorndyke and the Romney Pringle stories (the latter together with John Pitcairn (and under the pseudonym Clifford Ashdown)).
Today’s stories – two with Thorndyke and one with Pringle – were all filmed as part of The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes ITV-series and can be found in the accompanying book.
I have read Thorndyke-stories before and he is one of the rivals I’ve really enjoyed. Thorndyke occasional shares Holmes’ tendency to tell a man’s life-story from the way his clothes and hands look but most of the time he is more grounded in real science. As forensics/the history of forensics has fascinated me since my mother gave me her Jürgen Thorwald’s The Century of the Detectives-books, Thorndyke does have a soft spot in my heart. Even if he does occasionally share the blandness of many of Holmes’ colleagues.
I haven’t read any of the stories previously, but the two Thorndyke episodes were the only ones I watched from the TV-show. (However, I have forgotten everything about them, except for a memorable but plot-irrelevant scene from The Moabite Cypher).
Romney Pringle, on the other hand, is someone I hadn’t heard of before so I don’t know what to expect at all.
A Message from the Deep Sea (Dr. John Thorndyke)
A young woman is found murdered with a strand of long red hairs in her hand. When the police discover that her romantic rival has long red hair they don’t look further. Dr. Thorndyke, however, does.
Overall, the story is rather average but I do find it interesting that this is a case featuring a murdered young woman when I can barely remember Holmes-stories featuring women as murder-victims. And the women in this story also feel more real. Jealousy is not the most original of plots but a refreshing difference from Doyle’s beloved ‘I never did anything immoral. However, there was this one time I did something I won’t give any details about but which was in no way wrong. And if my husband who dearly loves me but who also is such an honest man would learn about this time where I didn’t do anything wrong he would die of shame.’-blackmail plots. Of course, everybody just wanted to be published in Victorian times and so it’s not like this story is full of juicy details. But I can’t deny that most of Freeman’s female characters feel more real than Doyle’s.
The mystery itself is pretty average. Of course, the police and their experts are useless and of course, only Thorndyke is clever enough to look further than them. Not unusual for these kinds of stories. Neither is Thorndyke’s penchant for a presenting his findings in a very dramatic way. But I couldn’t help thinking that (Spoiler: Highlight to show)
So: fun but nothing special.
The Moabite Cipher (Dr. Thorndyke)
The police fear that a certain person is part of a group that plans an assassination attempt on a high-ranking person. Unfortunately, their attempt to shadow him misfires and the suspect ends up dead. The only clue he was carrying with him is a message written in an incomprehensible cipher.
A mysterious cipher! An even more mysterious man who is worried about his brother’s health! And of course, it needs Thorndyke’s genius to figure out the connection. (Well, and a Marsh test).
That is exactly the kind of story I love. It has twists and turns and ends up somewhere you would have never guessed at the start. Sadly, it is also yet another instance of ‘this ominous foreigner who is also Jewish and did we mention ominous and probably evil?’, which is a frequent occurrence in Thorndyke-stories.
The Assyrian Rejuvenator (Romney Pringle)
By chance, Pringle discovers a company that cons people with a machine called ‘The Assyrian Rejuvenator’ that promises eternal youth. He decides to step in…
Wikipedia describes Romney Pringle as ‘reformed con-artist’ but this story seems to be from a time where he wasn’t yet reformed for all he does here is conning a different con-artist and then continuing that con on his own. And well…that’s not particularly endearing. I enjoy the occasional heist-story about loveable and clever rogues taking money from questionable characters that have more money than they can ever spend but it’s not that kind of con. Pringle isn’t even extraordinarily clever. He’s cunning and at the right place at the right time. His victims are average people who are somewhat stupid.
It seems that this is the first Pringle-story, so I assume the actual ‘reformed’ part will come in the later ones but I’m not exactly burning to check them out.
Since all the stories were also filmed for the eponymous series I (re)watched them as well. The Pringle-story manages to make him even more unlikeable: he doesn’t only con innocent people, he also endangers them. I think that this particular flavour of 70s humour isn’t my cup of tea.
The two Thorndyke-stories, on the other hand, make me wish we had gotten a whole series of him. Though they admittedly took some artistic license with canon and ‘Holmesified’ Thorndyke a bit; on the page, he never insisted “You know exactly as much as I do
Watson Jarvis, you can also solve this case as well as I can”. They also added a vain streak that isn’t quite as prominent in the books. But they also gave him a snarky Jarvis who has no qualms pointing exactly that out. More episodes with that duo could have been really enjoyable (especially since the also reduced the number of ominous Jewish people in the adaptations…which in one case meant turning a character Irish but…it’s the thought that counts…)