R. Austin Freeman Essay - Critical Essays


In his 1941 essay “The Art of the Detective Story,” R. Austin Freeman describes the beginning of what would become his greatest contribution to mystery and detective fiction—the inverted tale:Some years ago I devised, as an experiment, an inverted detective story in two parts. The first part was a minute and detailed description of a crime, setting forth the antecedents, motives, and all attendant circumstances. The reader had seen the crime committed, knew all about the criminal, and was in possession of all the facts. It would have seemed that there was nothing left to tell. But I calculated that the reader would be so occupied with the crime that he would overlook the evidence. And so it turned out. The second part, which described the investigation of the crime, had to most readers the effect of new matter. All the facts were known; but their evidential quality had not been recognized.

Thus it turned out in “The Case of Oscar Brodski,” which became the first in a long series of inverted tales told by Freeman and others.

“The Case of Oscar Brodski”

Brodski’s story is typical of the genre: In the first part of the story, “The Mechanism of Crime,” the reader is introduced to Silas Hickler—a cheerful and gentle burglar, not too greedy, taking no extreme risks, modest in dress and manner. One evening, a man he recognizes as Oscar Brodski the diamond merchant stops at Hickler’s house to ask directions. After a long internal debate, the usually cautious Hickler kills Brodski and steals the diamonds he is carrying. As best he can, the killer makes the death appear accidental by leaving the corpse on some nearby railroad tracks with its neck over the near rail, the man’s broken spectacles and all the bits of broken glass scattered about, and the man’s umbrella and bag lying close at hand.

It is not until Hickler has returned to his house, disposed of the murder weapon, and almost left for the train station again that he sees Brodski’s hat lying on a chair where the dead man left it. Quickly, he hacks it to pieces and burns the remains and then hurries to the station, where he finds a large crowd of people talking about the tragedy of a man hit by a train. Among the crowd is a doctor, who agrees to help look into things. The first part of the story ends with Silas Hickler looking at the doctor: “Thinking with deep discomfort of Brodski’s hat, he hoped that he had made no other oversight.”

If Freeman’s theory was wrong, and his experiment had not paid off, the story would be over for the reader at this point. The killer’s identity is known without a doubt, and any astute reader is sure that Hickler has made other oversights, so what else is there to learn? Luckily, Freeman was right, and watching the doctor—who turns out to be John Thorndyke—determine and prove the identity of the murderer is every bit as interesting as it would be if the killer’s identity was not already known to the reader.

Much of the success of this inverted story is the result of the skills of its author. As the second part of the story, “The Mechanism of Detection,” unfolds, bits of dialogue that Hickler overheard in the station are repeated, this time told by one of the speakers, and immediately the reader sees the possibilities inherent in going over the same ground from a different perspective.

Then another kind of fun begins: What did Hickler (and the reader) miss the first time through? In this case, at least one of the clues—the hat not quite fully destroyed—is expected, even by an unexperienced reader of mysteries. Before the reader can feel too smug about being ahead of Thorndyke on this one, however, the detective, with the aid of his friend Jervis and the ever-present portable laboratory, finds clues that even the sharpest reader will have overlooked: a fiber between the victim’s teeth, identified as part of a cheap rug or curtain; more carpet fibers and some biscuit crumbs on the dead man’s shoes; a tiny fragment of string dropped by the killer; and bits of broken spectacle glass that suggest by their size and shape that they were not dropped or run over but stepped on. The reader has seen the victim walk on the rug and drop biscuit crumbs, has seen the killer step on the glasses and gather up the pieces, and has seen him lose the bit of string. Yet—like Thorndyke’s assistant Jervis—the reader misses the significance of these until Thorndyke shows the way.

At the conclusion of the story, Thorndyke speaks to Jervis in a way that sums up one of Freeman’s primary reasons for writing the stories: “I hope it has enlarged your knowledge . . . and enabled you to form one or two useful corollaries.” Throughout his life, Freeman was interested in medicolegal technology, and through his stories, he entered...

(The entire section is 1978 words.)