Monday, February 22, 2010

The Eye of Osiris: a Free Book review

The Eye of Osiris (free audiobook here) by R. Austin Freeman is the second Dr. Thorndyke novel. In some respects, it's the better story--it's certainly the better mystery, because the solution won't be as obvious to a modern reader. However, it's also more ideologically motivated than The Red Thumb Mark: Freeman was not a Christian--he considered Christianity an outmoded relic--and there's a strong element of paganism in this story that wasn't nearly as noticeable in the first one.

Anyway--as the story opens, Dr. John Thorndyke is lecturing on the legal and medical problems of determining when (or if) someone has died. (This can affect inheritance if the order of two deaths is unknown.) He mentions a recent incident in which a man, John Bellingham, disappeared mysteriously, noting that it's likely to become a legal muddle. Then we flash forward a few years, and he was right.

One of the medical students at the lecture was Paul Berkeley, our narrator. He's substituting for another doctor when he encounters John Bellingham's brother, Godfrey, and niece, Ruth, both reduced to penury, which didn't pay well back then. And it's all because of perhaps the stupidest will in history.

Why stupid? The man who disappeared bequeathed £5,000 to his cousin and the rest of the estate to his brother. However, he stipulated that his remains be deposited in a proper spot in one of a few specific parishes. Since he has disappeared, it could be difficult to carry this out: they neither know where his body is nor whether he's done using it. But if the body is not so disposed of, the cousin gets the whole estate.

The cousin is trying to have the idiot testator declared dead, which would pretty much give him the estate. And suddenly bits of skeleton start showing up in places on or near the missing man's property...

The story is also rather droll in places. For example, at the hearing to determine whether to declare the missing man dead, a lawyer mentions the disappearance, "the most remarkable feature of that disappearance being, perhaps, its suddenness and completeness." The judge retorts, "It would, perhaps, have been even more remarkable if the testator had disappeared gradually and incompletely."

To conclude: the theological aspects are annoying, but otherwise this is a very entertaining and (dare I say it?) educational mystery. Recommended with some reservations.

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