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A dated curiosity you might find interesting
on January 22, 2013
I think the most obvious thing you need to know about the Dr. John Evelyn Thorndyke stories is that they're closely modeled on Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, whose publication predates the works of this author.
We have the genius, Thorndyke, who uses science to solve crimes. He's secretive. He's brave in the face of violence.
We have a sidekick, Christopher Jervis, who tells the story. Like Watson, Jarvis is a medical doctor. He is honorable to a fault, stuffy even. He is also, despite an impressive academic history, a bit dim.
The parallels are obvious, and they extend to the narrative structure. A mystery is presented and we trail the eccentric detective, enjoying the odd crumb he throws our way until, in a grand finale, he solves the mystery.
The technical details of how the crime is solved in The Red Thumb Mark are interesting and, to me, unique. They're very detailed. I understand the author is said to have performed all the experiments himself, in real life. Whether that is true or not doesn't matter. What matters is that they are convincing. Also, I find it interesting to learn what the state of detective science was in 1907.
Alas, there the similarity to Holmes ends. In The Red Thumb Mark, the story is thin. The clues inserted for our benefit are clumsily obvious. The author, perhaps reflecting the style of his era, is verbose to a fault.
The mores of his time are sometimes jarring to our modern sensibilities. There's a Society for Paralyzed Idiots. Both the name and the concept are used for laughs. Women are "unreasoning" when gripped by emotion. Poor people, the slumdwellers, are dirty, verminous and to be avoided. It's as though they're not human and are offensive to people of good breeding. The description of Thorndyke's personal servant is an upper class fantasy, the poor man's chief attribute being his unquestioning loyalty. Pin ears and tail on him and he'd be a faithful dog.
So why read these stories? Two reasons. One, the actual detective work and the science behind it. And two, the curiosity of seeing turn-of-the-century London through the eyes of a somewhat self-satisfied, prejudiced, seemingly well-to-do male.
Why avoid these stories? The intriguing science is but a tiny nugget of goodness smothered by an orgy of unnecessary words and not very good story-telling. Also, it's possible you'll be slightly offended by the attitudes of the day.
To me, these stories are curiosities. The technical competence is a large step below that of Sherlock Holmes, which itself isn't of Nobel Prize quality. In time I shall finish this volume, but not entirely for the reasons the author intended.