Monday, February 22, 2010

The Red Thumb Mark: a Free Book review

The Red Thumb Mark (free audiobook here) by R. Austin Freeman is the first Dr. Thorndyke novel. Dr. Thorndyke was a medical doctor turned lawyer, and effectively a pioneer in forensic science: he usually played the part of an expert witness, leaving the regular lawyering to an associate.

The Red Thumb Mark is interesting enough, despite the fact that a modern reader will not only know the culprit's identity almost immediately but also (generally) how it was done. In fact, at various points, something that would have been practically unimaginable to the readers of 1907 will be obvious to us, which shows how fleeting high-tech gimmickry is. You're more likely to be mystified at some of the antiquated features, such as the way the typewriters worked more than a century ago.

Anyway--a small fortune in diamonds has been taken from a safe, which was clearly unlocked rather than burgled, and an obliging clue left in the safe seems to resolve the mystery immediately: a thumbprint in blood that conveniently points to an otherwise virtuous man. From the standpoint of detection, the main item of interest is how Thorndyke will thwart the evil plot.

There's also the small matter of several attempts on Thorndyke's life, some rather ingenious, especially for the time. And the way visits with prisoners were conducted. Thorndyke gives a strong indictment of the criminal justice system of the time, and not all the problems have been addressed even yet.

This also marks the debut of Dr. Christopher Jervis, Thorndyke's Watson who chronicles many of his adventures. Like Watson, Jervis is the second banana who acts as the romantic lead; like Holmes, Thorndyke is evidently above such things. So there is a love story here as well, and a fairly good one at that.

In sum, it's an engaging read that can teach you a lot about the period--and perhaps a bit about forensic science as well.

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