Thursday, October 1, 2009

The First Forensic Scientist

For the Defence: Dr. Thorndyke, by R. Austin Freeman (1934)

When I sat down to write this post, I tried twice to briefly summerize the plot and provide a little bit of detail. But I couldn't do it without going on for paragraph after paragraph. It's all just too bizarre. Suffice to say that an artist and all-around nice guy named Andrew Barton gets arrested for murder. The oddest thing about this, though, is that he's accused of murdering himself, having been mistaken by the police for being his cousin Ronald.

The book ambles along at a slow but still interesting pace, gradually setting up a series of unlikely events and bad decision-making that lead up to this odd situation. Fortunately for Andrew, he manages to get Dr. John Thorndyke for his lawyer.

Dr. Thorndyke is an interesting figure in the History of Mystery. He first appeared in the 1907 novel The Red Thumb Mark. Created at a time after Arthur Conan Doyle had perfected the traditional mystery story, but before hard-boiled fiction added new blood to the genre, he's one of many pseudo-Holmsian characters that then filled the pages of fiction magazines.

But Thorndyke stuck around for thirty years because he was one of the better creations of the era. He was one of the first of what today would be called a forensic scientist, collecting evidence which he carefully studies and analyzes to get to the truth of the matter. In most of the Thorndyke novels, we know who the real killer is, but the fun is seeing how Thorndyke proves it. (It's a format similar in some ways to what Lt. Columbo would be doing on TV in the 1970s.)

And the author, R. Austin Freeman, is a very good writer. As I said above, the pace of For the Defence is slow. But Freeman keeps us involved. The plot is unlikely, but Freeman doesn't deny this--he instead uses this fact to help make things look grim for poor Andrew Barton. And Barton is a very sympathetic character--a thoroughly decent person who loves his wife and wants to do the correct and honest thing at all times. He does make a few dumb decisions as the story progresses, but they are mistakes we can understand that someone under severe stress might very well make.

This empathy for Barton carries us through most of the story. Then getting to see and hear Thorndyke expertly pick apart the prosecution's case during the trial makes for a satisfying climax.

Yes, Dr. Thorndyke didn't have the staying power in our popular culture that Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot have obtained, but he did all right for himself during his long career.

Next time, I think we'll take a look at a character who's staying power may be equal to that of Sherlock Holmes--corpulant detective Nero Wolfe. The book will be The Golden Spiders.

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