R. Austin Freeman is perhaps most significant as one of the inventors of the inverted detective story, in which the reader observes the crime being committed from the criminal’s point of view and then shifts to that of the detective to watch the investigation and solution of the puzzle. These stories depend on the reader’s interest in the process of detection, rather than on the desire to know “who done it.”
Freeman’s most important character, Dr. John Evelyn Thorndyke, was the first true scientific investigator, a realistic, utterly believable character whose solutions relied more on esoteric knowledge and laboratory analysis than on intuition, psychology, or physical force. As opposed to those who study people, Thorndyke is interested only in things. Though all necessary clues are laid out before the reader, it would be a rare reader, indeed, who was sufficiently versed in Egyptology, chemistry, anatomy, or archaeology to make sense of all the evidence.
The Thorndyke stories, intended in part to educate the reader about criminology, are nevertheless filled with believable and attractive characters, love interests, interesting settings, and vivid descriptions of London fogs, dense woods, and seafaring vessels.