“It is rather an alarming thing to see one’s description outside a police station and to learn that one is wanted for murder.”
Artist Andrew Barton has two problems. One is his nose, which was smashed beyond recognition in an accident. The other is his cousin Ronald, whose sponging ways have been lightening Andrew’s pocketbook for years. Since the accident, Andrew is even more afraid of Ronald—the two cousins used to resemble one another, and he worries that his wife Molly might now prefer Ronald’s appearance to his own. When Ronald needs to borrow money yet again, Andrew concocts a white lie so that he can keep Ronald and Molly from meeting. Little does he realize that this harmless fib will make him the prime suspect in not one, but two separate murders.
For the Defense: Dr. Thorndyke is an unusual and effective story that takes the form of an inverted mystery. The reader is privy to Andrew Barton’s deepest thoughts as he plots and executes his “crimes,” which at first amount to nothing more than lying to his wife. Over the course of one eventful twenty-four hour period, however, Andrew finds himself implicated in a staggering number of incidents. R. Austin Freeman coolly recounts Andrew’s activities in detail, while keeping the reader in the dark about what might be happening behind the scenes. Even the smallest decision has fateful consequences, crafting a relentlessly logical chain of events.
Andrew’s first trouble comes through no fault of his own. He is simply walking down a country lane one evening, when masked robbers attack a passing vehicle. Though he plans to report the crime to police the following day (no hurry there!), Andrew has more pressing matters on his mind. Determined to prevent Ronald from coming into contact with Molly, he tells his wife that he has business in London. In reality, he is meeting his cousin in a nearby town. A swim with Ronald on a deserted beach ends in tragedy, but when Andrew arrives at the police station seeking aid, he is greeted by a nasty surprise: he is wanted for the roadside murder of the previous night. There seems to be only one option. In order to keep his freedom, he must become Ronald.
Thanks to a bit of impromptu plastic surgery, Andrew has regained his handsome appearance. Like Narcissus, he is entranced by his own reflection.
His mind was still in a whirl of confusion from the crowding events and the repeated shocks that he had sustained, and, above all, from the glimpse of his cousin’s face looking out at him from the mirror. He had still the feeling of being in a dream or under some sort of spell of enchantment, of moving in a world of unrealities. The change that had been wrought in him had been too sudden and profound for complete realization. In the space of less than an hour he had become a different person. It was no mere matter of disguise. He was actually a different person. The Andrew Barton who had set forth from Fairfield that morning, had ceased to exist. In his place had been born an entirely new individual; and that individual was himself.
There is one thing he has failed to consider, however. “In slipping out of his own personality, he had slipped into that of another person; and thereby had taken over the reversion of that other person’s crop of wild oats. And it seemed that those wild oats were now ripe for the harvest.” Cousin Ronald’s activities have always been slightly murky to Andrew. By assuming his cousin’s identity, is he trading one bad name for another? He certainly has to wonder after a hostile encounter with a strange woman in a railway compartment.
She flung herself back on her seat and for the short remainder of the journey sat silent, crimson-faced and scowling, perfectly still, but with a stillness suggestive of violence repressed to bursting-point. Andrew felt as if he were travelling with a Mills bomb.
After further complications, Dr. John Thorndyke becomes involved in the case. Since he is both a medical doctor and a barrister, Dr. Thorndyke is admirably suited for criminal investigation. Like Perry Mason, he represents only innocent clients. Unlike Mason, however, he does not take that innocence on faith, believing nothing until science has proven it true. As a result, Thorndyke’s personality can come across as cold, even a little sinister, at one point regarding his client “with an expression that made his flesh creep.” Though Dr. Thorndyke is most famous as a scientific detective, that expertise doesn’t get much of a workout here. In fact, Thorndyke doesn’t do much detection at all. For this case, it’s his legal acumen that’s needed—unfortunately, as the legal scenes add an unwelcome tedium at a crucial point in the story.
Still, For the Defense: Dr. Thorndyke is a generally lively read that considers the implications of trying to become someone else. While not a true inverted mystery (since Andrew is not guilty), it is very much in the spirit of one as he tries to get away with a variety of crimes he has not actually committed. Although I have read some short stories by Freeman, this is my first encounter with one of his novels. If For the Defense: Dr. Thorndyke is typical of his work, it will be the first of many.
For the Defense: Dr. Thorndyke is out of print in the US. Paperback and ebooks editions are available in the UK from House of Stratus. This title is in the public domain in Australia; a free ebook is available to Australian readers at Project Gutenberg Australia.