The R. Austin Freeman Omnibus Edition
R. Austin Freeman

Edited and compiled with Norman Donaldson


The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box is proud to announce the publication of an eleven-volume edition of the entire writings of the creator of the immortal Dr. John Evelyn Thorndyke, the medico-legal investigator of 5a King's Bench Walk, including pieces not previously collected. This material is supplemented by a new revised and enlarged edition of Norman Donaldson's fine biography of Freeman and Thorndyke and also by scholarly essays about the great man, drawn from The Thorndyke File and elsewhere. Donaldson has also prepared for each Thorndyke novel (and for the collection of short stories) an introduction and "afterword" that put into perspective each member of the series as Freeman wrote them (for the stories are presented here in chronological order of publication), assess its strengths and weaknesses and examine the ways the author was progressively learning to master his unusual material to best effect, the aim being to make the reading – or rereading – of the entire Thorndyke canon a particularly rewarding experience.

Volume I

Here are the first Thorndyke novels, those offered to the world from 1907 to 1913, beginning with The Red Thumb Mark, a monument of the genre, in which the medico-legal investigator makes his entrance. Freeman conceived him many years earlier, and by the beginning of the century had drafted an embryonic story around him that was delayed in publication for several years. It first appeared as a long short story in an American magazine in 1911 as "31, New Inn," before its publication as a completely rewritten full-length novel, The Mystery of 31 New Inn. Both versions are included here, and readers, with the aid of Donaldson's commentaries, can gain insight into Freeman's methods of developing and deepening his approach. The Eye of Osiris combines the detective investigation with a love story set amid the mummy cases in the British Museum's Egyptology department. The first volume concludes with A Silent Witness; considered by many the finest of the Thorndyke novels, it incorporates a scene around a furnace, upstairs at No. 5a, in which the cause of death of a murder victim is successfully established by examination of crematory remains. The year after this novel's appearance, our author – and, incidentally, his two sons – were called away to war, and Thorndyke went into retirement for almost a decade.
Bound blue cloth, No Dustjacket, folio size, 422 pages.
ISBN 1-55246-084-3 $75.00

Volume II

Because the first of the Thorndyke short stories, "The Blue Sequin," first appeared in December 1908 (and was included a few months later in the first collection, John Thorndyke's Cases, the chronological series of novels is interrupted to present here in a single volume every one of the forty short tales that feature the outstanding medical jurist. Included are the three stories left out of the well-known London Thorndyke Omnibus, among them the unusually long tale "The Man with the Nailed Shoes." For many readers, the most enjoyable stories are those of the "inverted" type, invented by Freeman but of which he wrote only a handful. In these, the reader sees the crime being committed and believes no tell-tale clues have been left, only to watch Thorndyke, in the second part, uncover them one by one. In this volume, the inverted short stories appear ahead of the rest.
Bound blue cloth, folio size, 436 pages.
ISBN 1-55246-086-X $75.00

Volume III

Thorndyke reappeared after World War I, but only when the lukewarm reception of Freeman's foray into sociology and eugenics (see Vol. VIII below) caused him to turn back to the stories of which he was such a master. Helen Vardon's Confession (1922), never published in America, is probably the most difficult Thorndyke title to track down nowadays. Helen, very much the author's ideal young woman, an amateur worker in precious metals, is eager to make her own way in the world after a disastrous marriage and the sudden death of her father. Thorndyke's appearances are few – but significant – and he clears her of suspicion of murdering her estranged husband. Thorndyke comes back into full flower in The Cat's Eye, in which his partner is his independent-minded friend Robert Anstey, K.C. At one point, Thorndyke leads him into an underground chamber where they risk being engulfed at any moment with poison gas. While his friend coolly examines the mechanism of the device, Anstey – the narrator – "cursed his inquiring spirit, for I wanted to get out of this horrible trap."
    The Mystery of Angelina Frood is a commentary of sorts on Dickens's unfinished Mystery of Edwin Drood and especially a correction of a fallacy in Drood regarding quicklime's effect on the human body. The Shadow of the Wolf (1925) is one of Freeman's pair of inverted novels. It began life years earlier as the two-installment magazine story "The Dead Hand" (see Vol. IX below). As in the case of "31 New Inn," the reader has the opportunity to compare the methods by which our author was able to enlarge and enrich the shorter version to produce a thoroughly enjoyable novel about a murder committed near the Wolf Rock lighthouse, southwest of Land's End.
Bound blue cloth, folio, 422 pages.
ISBN 1-55246-088-6 $75.00

Volume IV

The Thorndyke novels published between 1926 and '31 include at least two of Freeman's finest. The D'Arblay Mystery is largely set in the waxwork studio of the attractive Marion D'Arblay, whose father's murder opens the story. A Certain Dr. Thorndyke is presented in two parts, the first of which is an adventure story set in West Africa. In the second part, Thorndyke is called in to solve a jewel robbery and thereby clear the hero of Part 1, the athletic John Osmond, of suspicion and allow him to return home and marry his true love. As a Thief in the Night is that rarity among this author's mysteries: a genuine whodunit, with the criminal's identity well hidden and containing a horrifying scene in Highgate Cemetery in which the young lawyer-narrator spies at midnight on the exhumation of his dead beloved. Mr. Pottermack's Oversight, the other inverted novel in the Thorndyke canon, is perhaps the best known of all Freeman's books. Mr. P. disposes of a blackmailer down a well in his garden and installs a sundial over it. He produces an apparently foolproof track of his victim's footprints that lead past his garden gate to a distant woodland. But Thorndyke detects a crucial oversight; what could this possibly be? In Pontifex, Son & Thorndyke our narrator is the adventure-loving teenager Jasper Gray, who closely resembles the author at a corresponding stage of his life. The more serious portion of the story concerns the disappearance of Sir Edward Hardcastle from his London club and the subsequent discovery of his body in a remote suburb.
Bound blue cloth, folio size, 489 pages.
ISBN 1-55246-090-8 $75.00

Volume V

The novels of 1932 to '37 include When Rogues Fall Out (Dr. Thorndyke's Discovery) in which Inspector Badger of Scotland Yard is found murdered in a railway tunnel. Dr. Thorndyke Intervenes introduces the attractive Pippet family from America, claimants to an English peerage. The story is based on the real Druce-Portland case, which culminated in 1907 and which revolved around the putative double life of the Duke of Portland. For the Defence: Dr. Thorndyke tells of look-alike cousins, one of whom, Andrew, has a shattered nose. The other is killed by a rock fall on a beach, and Andrew, his nose by this time reconstructed, is accused of his murder. Thorndyke rescues him without difficulty from durance vile. The Penrose Mystery is solved by a team of archaeologists, hired by Thorndyke to dismantle an ancient British barrow, Julliberrie's Grave. Surprisingly, this fictional digging led to a real-life excavation of the same burial mound shortly afterwards. The final novel, Felo de Se? (Death at the Inn), is set in Clifford's Inn, where a friend of the narrator, a young bank clerk, is found murdered. Oddly enough, the mice that had earlier infested the Inn have for some time been avoiding the place. Why?
Bound blue cloth, folio size, 468 pages.
ISBN 1-55246-092-4 $75.00

Volume VI

The final trio of Thorndyke novels appeared from 1938 to'42, and they are followed here by the four Ashdown collaborations. The Stoneware Monkey opens with the murder of a constable in a wood but soon moves to the pottery studio shared by an ill-assorted pair, Peter Gannet and the sinister Mr. Boles. When human remains are found in the pottery furnace, Thorndyke is called in. Mr. Polton Explains tells of the early poverty-stricken life of the crinkly-faced artificer of 5a King's Bench Walk, his training as a clock-maker and his rescue from near starvation by his future employer and friend. A calendar clock constructed by the talented young Nathaniel features years later in the arson-murder of a man with mottled teeth. The final novel in the superb Thorndyke canon was published just a year before the author's death at 81. The Jacob Street Mystery (The Unconscious Witness) features the landscape artist Tom Pedley who, at the opening, is sketching a woodland scene that, unknown to him at the time, immediately precedes a murder. Soon afterwards, a flirtatious new neighbour and faux artist, Lotta Schiller, begins to badger him. In due course she disappears, apparently at the site of an ancient British camp in Epping Forest.
    The first of the four works authored by the pseudonymous "Clifford Ashdown" – The Adventures of Romney Pringle – was the only one to appear in volume form during the lifetime of Freeman and his collaborator, Dr. J.J. Pitcairn of the prison service, whose identity was publicly disclosed only after Freeman's death. Pringle is an attractive adventurer who takes advantage of a series of victims usually as dishonest as himself. The Further Adventures is a similar work of higher quality. The Queen's Treasure never appeared in print at all until the MS was tracked down to the Pitcairn family and, after thorough editing, issued by Oswald Train of Philadelphia in 1975. Essentially, it is the account of a treasure hunt in Kent by two men, recently returned from West Africa, in competition with one another. Train published From a Surgeon's Diary in 1977. Less frivolous than the two Pringle series, it recounts a series of experiences by a hard-working country doctor who, like Pringle (and Pitcairn) but unlike Freeman, is a keen cyclist.
Bound blue cloth, folio size, 420 pages.
ISBN 1-55246-094-0 $75.00

Volume VII

Here are to be found Freeman's two serious novels, followed by what his publishers, in rejecting it, called "a horrible book." It has been condemned by most readers (but not all) as unworthy of Freeman, creator of the Great Fathomer. Also included are his three ventures into picaresque fiction.
     The volume opens with The Golden Pool (1905), the first work of fiction published by our author under his real name, and – especially for readers interested in Freeman's West African experiences – a thoroughly enjoyable book. It follows up on facts and legends picked up by the always perceptive Freeman during his late twenties while stationed on the Gold Coast. It is an exciting and tragic tale of gold retrieved from a river bed and melted down in a hidden     cave by blinded slaves. Some of the chief incidents can be found, in a rather different form, in Freeman's Ashantí book (see Vol. viii below). The Unwilling Adventurer (1913) is very much a sea-going adventure, in which the young hero is shanghaied and forced to serve in the Navy under his villainous cousin's command. We meet the remarkable Captain Parradine, a pirate chief of refined and literary tastes The book is comparable in quality with The Golden Pool.
    The "horrible book," published first (in America) as The Uttermost Farthing in 1914 and not until six years later in London as A Savant's Vendetta, chronicles the search for his wife's killer by a certain Professor Challoner, who knows the murderous burglar can be identified by his ringed hair – a rare condition – and eagerly entices over a score of housebreakers to his home, summarily dispatches them one by one and asks questions afterwards. Sometimes he giggles as he plays cat and mouse with his victims before finishing them off and adding them to his collections of skeletons and shrunken heads. Although many, perhaps most, feel that the the book gives tastelessness a bad name, a strong contrary vote is registered by the knowledgable E.F. Bleiler, who writes that he and his family "read it as black humor, a grand-guignol parodic thriller ... one of his best."
    The Exploits of Danby Croker (1916), The Surprising Experiences of Mr. Shuttlebury Cobb (1927) and Flighty Phyllis (1928) were written years before their collection in volumes and in fact first appeared as magazine serials in 1911, 1913, and 1914. Like all Freeman's non-Thorndyke material, they are exceedingly difficult to come by. Croker is a rascal with fair hair, who by the use of black dye can assume a passing likeness to the even more scoundrelly Tom Nagget; and by the application of peroxide Nagget can of course effect a contrary transformation. Why they should trouble to do this is beyond reasonable surmise, but that they should both fall foul of the law is hardly surprising. Cobb appears in a similar chain of connected episodes which include some treasure-hunting near Canterbury. Phyllis has a deep contralto voice, which enables her to assume the identity of her cousin Charlie, a dishonest man-about-town. Her frivolous devil-may-care style of narration, even when she is kidnapped and in due course freed by Charlie, who shoots down two of her captors, has the same chilling effect on the thoughtful reader as that engendered by Professor Challoner.
Bound green cloth, folio size, approximately 503 pages.
ISBN 1-55246-096-7 $80.00

Volume VIII

Travels and Life in Ashantí and Jáman (1898), Freeman's first book, centres on his experiences as medical officer and surveyor on an 1888-89 expedition into the little-known interior of West Africa. The party was made up of two other British officials, a hundred members of the Hausa Constabulary and two hundred carriers. There were important diplomatic missions to be conducted with the Kings of Ashantí and Jáman and, as it turned out, perils to be confronted in which the cool-headedness of the 26-year-old Freeman proved to be crucial to the survival and safe return of the expedition. The book is entertainingly written and richly illustrated by photographs and maps, and by sketches made on the spot by the talented author.
    Social Decay and Regeneration (1921) is Freeman's bid to have his eugenic views taken seriously. The book, which is introduced by Havelock Ellis, makes two main points: dependence on machines and mass-production is deleterious to human health and welfare, and eugenic planning is essential to the well-being of the "race." The author realized the impracticability of segregating "unfit" members of society and therefore recommended the setting up of a League, which members would join voluntarily and within which they would lead utopian lives as farmers and skilled craftsmen. Freeman's hope that his ideas would be enthusiastically embraced were soon disappointed, and he returned to the task for which he is best remembered: the authorship of Thorndyke stories. Freeman's articles on eugenics, assorted articles, essays and book reviews are included in addition to the non-Thorndyke short stories in The Great Portrait Mystery.
Bound green cloth, folio size with 3 maps in colour, over 400 pages.
ISBN 1-55246-098-3 $80.00

Volume XI

The final volume of the Omnibus Edition features Oliver Mayo's 1980 biography, R. Austin Freeman: The Anthropologist at Large. Like Donaldson, Mayo reviews Freeman's Thorndyke stories and other fiction, but gives special attention to the African and sociological works. He is well qualified to discuss the author's prescient views on Malaria and Blackwater fever, the disease that struck him down. He cites Colonial Office documents that set Freeman's African career in perspective. The biography is enriched by a series of letters, over many years, to Constance Freeman Briant from her uncle Richard. Volume XI also includes a rich selection of articles from The Thorndyke File and elsewhere as well as P.M. Stone's essay "5a King's Bench Walk," and at least one pastiche, Donaldson's "Goodbye, Dr. Thorndyke."
Bound black cloth, folio size.
ISBN 1-55246-170-X $80.00