Friday 13 January 2023

Forgotten Book - Mr Pottermack's Oversight

I started reading Richard Austin Freeman's stories about Dr Thorndyke when I was about twelve or thirteen. A schoolfriend lent me an omnibus of the short stories and I devoured them enthusiastically. But after reading one or two of the novels, my tastes changed and I found myself less attracted to scientific detection and more interested in other types of crime writing. When I came back to Freeman, however, many years later, I found that his merits endure. His writing style is formal and was old-fashioned even towards the end of his own lifetime, but there's something about his best work that is quite compelling. Even Raymond Chandler appreciated that.

For some reason, I've never got round to reading one of his most famous novels until now. This is Mr Pottermack's Oversight and it's an inverted mystery of the type that Austin Freeman first popularised with the stories collected in The Singing Bone just before the First World War. Dorothy L. Sayers was among his most fervent admirers and perhaps this was a factor that encouraged him to adapt his approach to the inverted story and write a novel.

And the first thing I'd like to say is that, rather more than ninety years on, it stands up to scrutiny. There are a number of reasons for this. First, the protagonist, Marcus Pottermack, is essentially a decent man, even though he is naive and ultimately driven to commit murder. His victim, a blackmailer, is devoid of redeeming features other than superficial charm and it's almost impossible not to root for him.

Second, the scientific element of the detective work undertaken by Thorndyke is interesting and clearly explained. Pottermack's methods seem ingenious, but they aren't quite craft enough to outwit the great man. Third, the situation resolves itself in a way that I find appealing. This isn't a conventional detective story, and it isn't even conventional by the standards of Golden Age inverted mysteries (I don't think Freeman Wills Crofts would have had the stomach to end the story in the way that Austin Freeman does, but then, the two Freemans were very different personalities). I really enjoyed this story and, although as I say I'm an Austin Freeman fan of long-standing, it appealed to me even more than I anticipated. Recommended. 


David Chapman said...

This was the first Dr Thorndyke novel I read and it is still my favourite. I came across it quite by accident. Found laying on top of a pile of books in the bookshop of Thomas Thorpe in Guildford fifty years ago. Sadly so many old second-hand bookshops have gone over the years.

Alan Pendlebury said...

Very interesting review. Having read all Freemans novels ,I too still find this one to be up there with the best. It seems to have all the strengths of Freemans best writing ,with fewer of the weaker and irritating parts . I would always recommend this to newcomers the this writer .

Martin Edwards said...

David, thanks, and yes, it's a real shame that so many of those wonderful shops have gone.

Martin Edwards said...

Alan, I agree. He really was an interesting and influential writer and the more I read him (and learn from RAF experts like David) the more I'm impressed by his contribution to the genre. And whilst I have the chance, can I thank you for your very thoughtful Amazon reviews, which always strike me as persuasive and fair, however much or little you enjoy the book in question.