One good reason for this unique situation lies in Freeman's
training and background. Born in London in 1862, he attended private
schools and took up the study of medicine. Like Conan Doyle he was
impressed by the methods of one of his medical school instructors (in
Freeman's case a specialist in medical jurisprudence, Dr. Alfred Swayne
Taylor), and also like Doyle he was later to "sit" his mentor as model.
After taking his medical degree, Freeman went to the Gold Coast of Africa, where he acquired the material for his first (non-detective) books and a case of black-water fever that permanently impaired his health. Invalided home to England, he practised his profession in various not very profitable capacities—one comprehends the presence of the forlorn "locum tenens" in so many of his tales—including a term as medical advisor at Holloway Prison, where he learned to know his "old lags." Eventually his health made further active practice of any sort inadvisable, and he turned to fiction and the creation of the medico-legal detective story, in which he stands preeminent to this day.
The Red Thumb Mark (1907) was the book which marked his debut in the form, at the age of forty-five. In respect to puzzle-and-solution, this remarkable volume remains one of the undisputed milestones of the genre. What is of but slightly less importance, it served to bring into existence the immortal THORNDYKE and his delectable associates, Jervis and Polton. To-day the bombs of the barbarians have written physical finis to the familiar chambers in King's Bench Walk; but in some happier and imperishable country of the mind, one likes to believe, the admirable trio still serve the cause of abstract justice with insufflator and micrometer.*
A shy, modest man, looking the solid Britisher he is, Dr. Freeman makes his1 home at Gravesend, Kent. There, in the heart of "Hell's Corner," he was reported still to dwell in 1941, aged seventy-nine, philosophically pursuing his writing and numerous hobbies in a personally designed bomb-shelter in his garden. He is known to be an expert bookbinder, a capable wax and clay modeler, and an amateur painter of the academic school, as well as his own laboratory technician. To prospective interviewers he invariably replies: "I have no desire for personal publicity." Unlike his famous character, he is married, and has two sons.
The numerous Freeman books, still happily appearing at yearly intervals at this writing, are of a uniform detectival excellence, if slightly monotonous in their resemblance to each other. Special significance, however, attaches to The Singing Bone (1912), in which the author made the experiment of revealing to the reader the full stories of the crimes first, then describing the steps leading up to the solutions by the detective. This rather dangerous departure—perilous in that it dispenses almost entirely with the puzzle and suspense elements—Freeman never repeated in toto; but in all the THORNDYKE stories the revelation of the criminal will usually be found subordinated to the means of detection. In another writer
* A particularly timely and delightful "reconstruction" of the THORNDYKE legend and surroundings, in the best Baker Street Irregular manner, has recently been provided by P. M. Stone, the American collector and authority on Freeman, in his essay "sA King's Bench Walk," published in the omnibus volume Dr. Thorndyke's Crime File (New York, Dodd, Mead, 1941).
this might be grounds for
criticism, but in Freeman's skilled hands so fascinating is the business
of investigation (based on actual experiments worked out in the author's
extensive laboratory) that we scarcely notice the absence of
For a good generation after HOLMES, virtually every fictional detective
of consequence was either an outright amateur or, at the least, a
private consulting agent, engaged in outshining and humiliating the
minions of the law. With AEW Mason M. HANAUD, of the Surete, we come for
the first time since Gaboriau to a really notable police detective. In
this single sense HANAUD may loosely be called a descendant of LECOQ.
But there the resemblance ends, for in contrast to the lumpish
sensationalism of Gaboriau, the HANAUD adventures are among the most
subtly conceived and described in the genre. Mason, though he chooses a
Gallic mise-en-scene, and though he handles French judiciaire procedure
like a native, is an Englishman, and is thus not under the compulsion
most French writers of detection seem to feel, of following literally in
the footsteps of the feuilletonist.
Born in London in 1865, Alfred Edward Woodley Mason was
educated at Dulwich College and Oxford. An early career as an actor gave
him a sense of theater that may well account for the adaptation of so
many of his books to the stage and screen. He turned to literature at
the age of thirty. In illustration of his many notable popular and
critical successes, The Four Feathers may be mentioned among his novels
and The Witness for the Defence among his works for the theater. The
most painstaking of craftsmen, he often travels half-way around the
globe to absorb at first hand authentic color and detail for a single
elaborately conceived and executed story. A term in the House of Commons
inevitably produced a political novel; experiences during the First
World War as the civilian Chief of the British Naval Intelligence gave
him material for a number of volumes of superior adventure and intrigue.
Original text © Howard Haycraft and Peter Davies 1942 Layout © R.D. Collins
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