Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Turnaround Is Fair Play

Today would be the 145th birthday of R. Austin Freeman, had he not perished in 1943 at 81 years of age. For those of you who are asking yourselves, R. Austin Who? this is especially significant, for you don’t realize that you have probably been enjoying one of Freeman’s storytelling techniques for years, without even realizing it.

Briefly, Richard Austin Freeman was born in London in 1862 and studied medicine at Middlesex Hospital in the British capital. However, a stint with the UK’s Colonial Service in Africa’s Gold Coast colony left him with blackwater fever (a complication of malaria) that made regular employment in his profession difficult. As a result, he and his family resettled in the Kent town of Gravesend, where Freeman hoped to make a reasonable living writing fiction (ah, the optimism). After publishing some stories under the nom de plume “Clifford Ashdown,” which he shared with a collaborator, Dr. John James Pitcairn, Freeman created protagonist Dr. John Thorndyke, an early forensic scientist (although the author referred to him as a “medical jurispractitioner,” instead).

The erudite Thorndyke, who was assisted in his knotty investigations by lab technician Nathaniel Polton, and by his friend Christopher Jervis (who also acted as narrator), first appeared in Freeman’s fourth novel, The Red Thumb Mark (1907), which dealt with internecine squabbles in the diamond business and the impossible” theft of jewels from a closed safe. But it was in this author’s 1912 collection of abbreviated yarns, The Singing Bone, that he introduced the “inverted detective story”--that is, a tale in which the reader knows exactly how and by whom the crime was committed, but continues reading in order to see by what means the detective unravels the mystery for him- or herself. This was a reversal of the standard whodunit format. “All the facts were known,” Freeman explained in 1924 essay titled “The Art of the Detective Story,” “but their evidential quality had not been recognized.”

If this plotting format sounds familiar, it’s because the popular American TV series Columbo adopted it in almost all of its episodes. (The lone departure from this technique that comes to mind is the 1976 episode “Last Salute to the Commodore,” in which the murderer’s identity is only revealed at the end.)

During World War I, Freeman joined the Royal Army Medical Corps. Afterwards, he returned to writing, composing approximately a novel a year until his death. An assortment of his stories can be downloaded at no cost from the Project Guterberg site.

So the next time you encounter an inverted detective tale, you’ll know who to credit for its uncommon construction.

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Also celebrating a birthday is Liza Cody, British creator of private investigator Anna Lee (Dupe) and wrestler Eva Wylie (Bucket Nut), who turns 63 years old today.

READ MORE:Review by Mary Reed: R. Austin Freeman--The Jacob Street Mystery” (Mystery*File).

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