Wednesday, 24 February 2010

A Mystery of the Deep Sea

There is nothing new about the importance of forensic pathology in detective fiction, and I was reminded of this when watching the opening episode of The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes, a very enjoyable collection on DVD of the first series of this excellent TV show from the 1970s. The mystery in question was ‘A Message from the Deep Sea’, and the author of the original tale on which the episode was based was R. Austin Freeman.

Freeman’s detective was Dr John Thorndyke, and if you haven’t come across him, you have missed a giant of the Golden Age of detective fiction. Thorndyke specialised in what he liked to call ‘medical jurisprudence’, and – often assisted by his friend Jervis, he used his scientific expertise to unravel countless puzzles that defeated the hapless chaps from Scotland Yard and sundry rural forces.

In this episode, Dr Thorndyke was played by John Neville – a handsome actor, whose casting provides a reminder that Thorndyke was supposed to be a handsome man, though the emphasis was always on his detective skills, his personal life never intruding as it would be in the hands of a modern writer. The puzzle involved the throat-cutting of a young woman, and the police suspicion of a classic ‘obvious suspect’. In an inquest scene, Thorndyke establishes that the evidence proves the guilt of another – a chap who foolishly makes a run for it, only to be captured by the burly cops Thorndyke has arranged to be stationed in the makeshift courtroom.

I enjoyed this episode. Neville makes Thorndyke rather more charismatic than I remember him from my teenage years, when I read many of the Freeman short stories, plus several of the novels. Jervis was played by James Cossins, best remembered as a hotel inspector in an episode of ‘Fawlty Towers’, while one of the cops was played by Terence Rigby, better known in the 70s as P.C. Snow in Softly, Softly.


Eric said...

I am planning to read more books by R. Austin Freeman having "discovered" In the Shadow of the Wolf last year. That was an excellent book. The writing, the psychological aspects, Thorndyke himself, all exceeded my expectations which I admit, were probably somewhat formed by stereotyped ideas about Golden Age mystery novels. Of course the aspect of the fascinating puzzle, which one expects from such books, was also present, even though the killer was known from the start, it being one of Freeman's "inverted mysteries."

Ann Elle Altman said...

Sounds like I have missed out on a bit. I wonder if they have this episode on youtube.


Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

I haven't seen these, but they sound like fun.

Mystery Writing is Murder

Jilly said...

I always used to watch 'Softly, Softly' - Terence Rigby played the dog handler and in one episode his dog was killed. That was an excellent series IMO.

Margot Kinberg said...

Martin - Thanks for reminding me of this series. I confess I didn't see it when it aired regularly, but I am going to try to track the DVDs down.

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks very much for these comments - and I'm sorry that I seem somehow to have allowed two or three others to vanish into cyberspace. By coincidence, there is an interesting thread on the excellent Detectives Beyond Borders blog about Freeman this week.
Eric, I agree, Freeman was an interesting writer, who tends to be under-rated. He's certainly quite important in the history of the genre.
I'm looking forward to watching the rest of the DVDs in series 1 of The Rivals...

Martin Edwards said...

Jilly - I remember the very episode of Softly, Softly that you mention - it was poignant. But was the dog's name Radar? I can't recall at this distance of time.
I was sorry to see that Terence Rigby died recently. He was a strong actor.