Saturday, 4 July 2020

Forgotten Book - Pontifex, Son and Thorndyke

When I was about thirteen or so, a friend of mine, knowing of my interest in detective stories, lent me a copy of a novel by R.Austin Freeman that belonged to his family. I took a look at the first page, but found the style off-putting. I never got any further and in the end I gave the book back. But a little while later, another schoolfriend lent me an omnibus volume of Freeman's short stories about Dr Thorndyke, and I found that much more to my taste. (Yes, I was lucky in my schoolfriends, wasn't I?) Ever since then, I've had a soft spot for Austin Freeman.

The novel that I failed to persevere with was Pontifex, Son and Thorndyke, and I've finally got round to reading it. And guess what? This time, I rather enjoyed it. It's one of those books with two distinct plot strands which eventually come together. The early pages are narrated by a likeable young fellow called Jasper Grey who gets involved in some mysterious goings-on, while the puzzle put before Dr Thorndyke concerns the inexplicable disappearance of Sir Edward Hardcastle.

Austin Freeman is often described, and fairly, as a major figure of the Golden Age, but several factors differentiate his work from that of, say, Dorothy L. Sayers (who greatly admired him) and Agatha Christie. He was an older person who came to prominence as a writer in the Edwardian era, and there is an old-fashioned feel about his prose and dialogue. This is partly why I was deterred from reading this book originally, and helps to explain why Julian Symons famously (if too harshly) compared reading Freeman to "chewing dry straw". There's also a whiff of antisemitism about some of the language used; whether that reflects Freeman's thinking or simply the attitudes of his characters, I'm not sure, but I suspect the former. Another issue is that Freeman's great interest lay in the meticulous scientific and technical accuracy of his criminal and investigative schemes. So if you're looking for "least likely person" whodunits, you won't get much joy from a book like this. His ingenuity was of a very different sort to Christie's.

Yet despite these reservations, I found myself being more entertained by this book than I'd expected. It's not a masterpiece, and I don't even suggest that it's one of Freeman's best books. But it's a bit out of the ordinary and that's no bad thing. I'm glad that, after so many years, I finally got to the end of it.


Jonathan O said...

I don't think Freeman was so much anti-semitic as generally hostile to Eastern European immigrants.
I don't understand Symon's "dry straw" comment at all. I wonder if this is a case of the reverse halo effect - if Symons was aware of Freeman's political views, it might have caused him to underrate his writing style in consequence.
I don't know if you've heard the latest podcast on the Invisible Event blog, but there Tony Medawar suggests that there might be some lost RAF short stories - I really hope he's right!
BTW, I'm not having any luck finding a copy of the David Ian Chapman book - my local independent bookseller, who's normally very good in this respect, can't locate one at all. No luck on Ebay or Abebooks either.

Martin Edwards said...

Very interesting, Jonathan. If you want to let me have your email address, I'll put you in touch with David.

Jonathan O said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

Thank you to Martin for his review. And thank you to Jonathan for your interest.

Tony Medawar had obtained a list of titles from Freeman's literary agent and over the years we have whittled them down to about twenty left to uncover. The last couple to be found were The Pendulum, which happened to be an article in the Littlhampton Gazette, so you can see how difficult it has been. The last was a short story, The Convict's Escape, in the Diss Express. This turned out to be a previously known short story entitled A Question of Salvage. I do list the ones we are still looking for. It will be a sad day when there is nothing left to find.

Twenty odd years ago all the previously uncollected Freeman short stories, some discovered by Tony, were included in volume nine of the R. Austin Freeman Omnibus Edition published in Canada by the Battered Silicon Dispatch Box. I may still have copies of this knocking around. If so I will later today put them on eBay plus my Bibliography, which was privately published.

David Chapman