Thursday, August 31, 2017

Book Review: The Red Thumb Mark

The Red Thumb Mark
R. Austin Freeman

Another old-school classic, of sorts, found at the Seattle Mystery Bookshop. The Red Thumb Mark (1907) is the first of Freeman's "Dr. Thorndyke" series. Freeman was very well-known and well-regarded back in the Golden Age of Mystery; he has a fair claim to have invented the scientific-legal thriller, in which the detective uses genuine scientific or technical knowledge to identify the criminal.

On that level I have no quarrels with The Red Thumb Mark. The science is detailed, well-explained, and (as far as I can judge) sound. The expository dialog is a little stiff, but it's not bad for all that. The trial scenes are entertaining, too.

When Freeman is writing about anything other than science or law, though, his prose takes on a distinctly mauve shade. It's not quite purple, but . . . well, just look.
I glanced from time to time at my companion, and noted that her cheek still bore a rosy flush, and when she looked at me, there was a sparkle in her eye, and a smiling softness in her glance, that stirred my heart until I trembled with the intensity of the passion that I must needs conceal. And while I was feeling that I must tell her all, and have done with it, tell her that I was her abject slave, and she my goddess, my queen; that in the face of such a love as mine, no man could have any claim upon her; even then, there arose the still, small voice that began to call me an unfaithful steward and to remind me of a duty and trust that were sacred even beyond love.
The actual dialogue I will spare you. On his worst day, Conan Doyle (to take one instance) could not possibly have written this stuff.

It must also be said that Jervis, the narrator, is phenomenally dim-witted, while Dr. Thorndyke himself is colorless and one-dimensional. O tempora! O mores! The prose of 1907 is not the prose of 2017. I fear that, unlike such distinguished contemporaries as The Hound of the Baskervilles (1901), The Red Thumb Mark must now be regarded mainly as a period piece.


  1. Egad. That's as bad as Isaac Asimov's ill-advised attempts at love scenes.

    1. In fairness, Freeman had at least the excuse that back then there were a lot of people who wrote like that. Or worse. Asimov . . . well, Isaac should have stuck to his comfort zone. It's probably revealing that the only halfway convincing sex scene he ever wrote (in The Gods Themselves) involved semi-corporeal aliens.