Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Tuesday, November 10, 2020


"The Case of Oscar Brodski" by R. Austin Freeman (1910)

Historically speaking, this is one of the most important detective stories written -- the first "inverted" mystery, one which opened the floodgates for authors to follow.  An inverted mystery (also blithely referred to as a "howcatchem") begins with the murder act itself, letting the reader know who did it, and why, and how; the latter part of the story focuses on how the detective will determine who did it.  Malice Aforethought by Francis Iles, Enter a Murderer by Ngaio Marsh, The 12.30 from Croyden by Freeman Wills Croft, and the short stories of Roy Vickers about The Department of Dead Ends are all examples of this approach.  The inverted mystery has become a staple on television with many episodes from Monk, Columbo, Dragnet, Luther, and Criminal Minds as examples.

In his introduction to The Singing Bone (1912; US title The Adventures of Doctor Thorndyke), Freeman explains:  "Would it be possible to write a detective story in which from the outset the reader ws taken entirely into the author's confidence, was made an actual witness of the crime and furnished with every fact that could possibly be used in its detection?  Would there be any story left when the reader had all the facts?  I believed there would; and as an experiment to test the justice of my belief, I wrote 'The Case of Oscar Brodski.'  Here the usual conditions are reversed; the reader knows everything, the detective knows nothing, and the interest focuses on the unexpected disnificance of trivial circumstances.

"By excellent judges on both sides of the Atlantic -- including the editor of Pearson's Magazine -- this story was so far approved of that I was invited to produce others of the same type."

Freeman went on to write five additional inverted mystery stories in his Dr. Thorndyke saga.  Six stories in a series that eventually numbered 21 novels and 40 short stories may not seem like much, but to the development of the mystery genre it was immense.

Silas Hickler was a burglar, a very cagy and successful one, and early on in life he had been connected with the diamond industry, acting a cautious fence.  Hickler was at home alone when there was a knock on the door; it was a man asking directions to the railroad station.  Hickler recognized the man as Oscar Brodski, a successful jewel merchant who often carried diamonds to Amsterdam for cutting.  It was no stretch of the imagination to consider that Brodski was at the start of such a journey, probably carrying stones worth five thousand pounds or more.  Since the train station was only a short distance away, Hicklet invited the traveler in to warm up before heading out; there was plenty of time before the next train was due.  Thinking of the valuable gems that Brodski undoubtedly carried, something snapped within Hickler.  He picked up a metal bar and struck his guest -- three strikes were not sufficient; Hickler finally had to asphyxiate Brodski by shoving a tablecloth into his moth and hold it there for several minutes.  In the fray, a drinking tumbler and Brodski's spectacle glasses were broken.  Heckler removed the diamonds from Brodski's body -- they were there, as Heckler believed.  He then swept up the broken glass, putting aside the larger recognizable pieces of Brodski's spectacles.  He used a piece of string to tie his victim's bag and umbrella and sling them over his shoulder.  Heckler then carried the body over a shortcut to the railroad tracks.  He laid it on the tracks his Brodski's head over one rail,  He cut the string and flung the umbrella and bag near the body.  Heckler then cut across the fields as he heard the sound of the train approaching.  Back home, Heckler discovered that he had forgotten Brodski's hat.  He hacked the hat to pieces and threw it into the fireplace, beating the remains into small unrecognizable ashes.  Heckler then packed his own bag and walked to the station, where he found an excitable crowd talking about the dead body.  One in the crowd recognized Brodski's umbrella.

Here we take up the second half of the story -- the investigation.  One person at the station was Dr. Thorndyke on his way to watch the proceedings of an inquest the next afternoon. With him was the narrator of this half of the story, Thorndyke's friend Jervis.   Also at the station was Boscovitch, an old friend of Brodski and (coincidentally) of Thorndyke.  Brodski asks Thorndyke to look things over and Thorndyke agrees, at least enough to settle if this was an accident, suicide, or something else.  The police show up and, after reviewing Thorndyke's credentials as a forensic "medical jurispractitioner," agree to have him look into the case.  Thorndyke carries a small bag of instruments with him always, including a tiny microscope, slides, a dissecting needle, and various chemicals.  He examined the pieces of Brodki's spectacles near the body, he found a trace of cloth between the teeth of the victim, examined the soles of Brodski's shoes.  Among the shard of glass were a few fragments that were not optical glass;  the soles of the shoes showed no traces of the victim having walked to where the body was found.  In the rough bushes he found a metal bar where Heckler had tossed it; there were with several hairs stuck to it.  What he did not find was the victim's hat.  There was only one house nearby and that drew Thorndyke's attention.  There at the house he found a small shard of glass that matched the victims spectacles, the remains of the hat brim, and other evidence that showed Brodki was killed there.  Heckler, meanwhile, had gone to Amsterdam to disposed of the diamonds, was arrested when he arrived, and on the way boat back to England, jumped overboard.  His body was found later.  Meanwhile, Thorndyke easily made to the inquest he originally stated out to observe

:"The Case of Joseph Brodski" was first published in in the December 1910 edition of Pearson's Magazine.  It was the lead story in Freeman's second collection of Dr. Thorndyke stories, The Singing Bone (1912) and was included in two other compilations:  The Famous Cases of Dr. Thorndyke (1929), and The Best Dr. Thorndyke Detective Stories  (1973, edited by E. F. Bleiler).  

Freeman (1862-1943) was one the the most noted of the Golden Age mystery writers.  A medical doctor, he suffered a breakdown in 1904 and quit medicine for writing.  He had already written a series of popular stories about Romney Pringle written with John J. Pitcairn under the pseudonym "Clifford Ashdown."  His first solo novel, The Golden Pool (1905), was an adventure story set in Africa and became required reading for members of the British African colonial services.  He had what may gracefully be called an attitude about social classes and races that was prevalent among some British of his time, and might better be called flaming bigotry.  He railed against the immigration of people with undesirable genetic traits (actually, he called immigrants "sub-humans) and espoused "segregation, marriage restriction, and sterilization."  He was an anti-Semite, but applied this (somewhat) strictly to the poor, Jews who were successful were generally okay.

As for his writing, opinions differ.  Julian Symons said that "reading a Freeman story is very much like chewing dry straw," and called his talents as  writer as "negligible."  Raymond Chandler, however, was a fan, calling Freeman a "much better writer than you might think."  Dr. Thorndyke has been compared to Sherlock Holmes (there are many similarities); T. J. Binyon, in Murder Will Out:  The Detective in Fiction (1990), wrote "Thorndyke might be the superior detective, Conan Doyle is undeniably the better writer."  Most critics agree, however, that Freeman was a master of descriptive writing.  For myself, I have to admit (to my shame) that I have only read one book by Freeman, his first collection John Thorndyke's Cases, which I thoroughly enjoyed.


  1. R. Austin Freeman is a writer I should read more of. I have a couple DOVER books of his work that have been on my shelves for decades. Time to dust them off and read them! Nice review!

  2. I have the MX books of Thorndyke stories and novels, as far as they've been published, and have read THE SINGING BONE among them. Very enjoyable.