The Red Thumb Mark by R Austin Freeman

red-thumb-markR Austin Freeman was a prolific writer who it is claimed (by him, at least) invented the inverted detective story, usually featuring investigator/lawyer/medic/whatever-scientist-seems-to-be-needed-for-the-plot Dr Thorndyke. This is Thorndyke’s debut and has a more standard structure.

Reuben Hornby stands accused of stealing a bundle of diamonds from his uncle’s safe. The evidence looks pretty solid – a fingerprint in blood left at the scene of the crime which belongs to Hornby. Is Hornby guilty or can Thorndyke find the true guilty party? And by the end of the book, will the reader give a flying monkey’s about what’s going on?

I never would have read this if it hadn’t been the easiest thing to find for Past Offences’ 1907 entry into Crimes Of The Century. So what can I say that’s positive about it? Well, it’s fairly short…

Probably one of the most tedious books that I’ve read in a long time, with pages and pages about fingerprint science. There are two other books that spring to mind to compare it to. One is Nine – And Death Makes Ten by Carter Dickson, which also involves some fingerprint jiggery-pokery. That takes a paragraph to explain what’s going on and, to be honest, is at least as convincing as the pages and pages presented here. The other one is, coincidentally, Shot At Dawn by John Rhode, my most recent read, which contains passages about rifle ballistics and the effects of tides. While these are longer (although not as long as in this book) they are much more readable.

This book is basically all about breaking the fingerprint evidence. Yes, there’s a token love story thrown in, but that’s just window dressing, and there is some dreadful dialogue in these bits.

“Never had I met a woman who so entirely realised my conception of what a woman should be”.

Oh dear… but the dialogue between our young lovers did bring one smile to my face, but only because I’ve got a filthy mind.

“I may take it that I am to be pumped?”
“Come now, you have been plying the pump handle pretty vigorously yourself!”

Basically, it’s just boring, apart from that one snigger, and with barely enough plot for a short story. There may be some points of interest for the reader of what I consider pre-Golden Age crime fiction, but this is no classic. Not Recommended, I’m afraid.

For other opinions (for they do exist), take a look at Cross Examining Crime and Reactions To Reading.


  1. I wouldn’t give up on Freeman altogether. Many of his books have dated or are boring, but he introduced science and his best plot ideas (disposal of the corpse, identity tricks, skulduggery with wills) influenced later writers, including Sayers and Christie. His best books, though, are both ingenious and charming; if you haven’t read them, try THE EYE OF OSIRIS (a vanishing Egyptologist), THE D’ARBLAY MYSTERY (wax modelling) and


  2. AS A THIEF IN THE NIGHT (diabolical murder method and excellent characterisation). MR POTTERMACK’S OVERSIGHT is a classic inverted story. THE MYSTERY OF ANGELINA FROOD, his pastiche of Dickens, is sweet; the solution is a surprise!!!, but some readers find it unconvincing.


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