Richard Austin Freeman was born on April 11, 1862, in his parents’ home in the West End of London. The son of a tailor, Freeman declined to follow his father’s trade, and at the age of eighteen he became a medical student at Middlesex Hospital. In 1887, he qualified as a physician and surgeon. Earlier that same year, he had married Annie Elizabeth Edwards, and on completion of his studies he entered the Colonial Service, becoming assistant colonial surgeon at Accra on the Gold Coast. During his fourth year in Africa, he developed a case of blackwater fever and was sent home as an invalid. Freeman’s adventures in Africa are recorded in his first published book, Travels and Life in Ashanti and Jaman (1898).
Little is known of the next ten years of Freeman’s life. After a long period of convalescence, he eventually gave up medicine and turned to literature for his livelihood. Freeman’s first works of fiction, two series of Romney Pringle adventures, were published in Cassell’s Magazine in 1902-1903 under the pseudonym Clifford Ashdown and were written in collaboration with John James Pitcairn. In his later life, Freeman denied knowledge of these stories, and the name of his collaborator was unknown until after Freeman’s death.
Freeman published his first Thorndyke novel, The Red Thumb Mark, in 1907. It was scarcely noticed, but the first series of Thorndyke short stories in Pearson’s Magazine in 1908 was an immediate success. Most of these stories were published as John Thorndyke’s Cases in 1909.
By then, Freeman was in his late forties. He continued his writing, producing a total of twenty-nine Thorndyke volumes, and maintained his love of natural history and his curiosity about matters scientific for the remainder of his life. He maintained a home laboratory, where he conducted all the analyses used in his books. He suspended work for a short time in his seventies, when England declared war, but soon resumed writing in an air-raid shelter in his garden. Stricken with Parkinson’s disease, Freeman died on September 28, 1943.