R AUSTIN FREEMAN – The Case of the White Footprints

It’s not often that I read a detective story and then spend a couple of hours looking up the crucial clue because I’d never heard of it before. However, there really is such a thing as ainhum and it’s pretty disgusting. I suspect it may have been better known in the Twenties, when this story was written – especially since at that time, Britain retained a vast number of colonies.

This story is quite unusual for a Thorndyke mystery; it’s set in a Margate boarding house rather than the legal district of London, for starters, and Jervis is initially our main character. He attempts to solve the crime using the techniques of logical deduction he has learned from Thorndyke and it is not until about halfway into the story that the reader meets Thorndyke himself. And, unsurprisingly, by that time you almost know he will come up with an alternative answer.

This is an absolutely wonderful story, not least because of Freeman’s dazzling sleight of hand with the clues, all of which have apparently obvious explanations, but the logical and most plausible (and right) one is the one that nobody else but Thorndyke has thought of. That said, it is explained in logical detail and the reader is left kicking themselves for not having spotted it earlier. It’s everything I love about a Thorndyke story.

There are a couple of things that did surprise me; given Britain’s colonial realms and many of its subjects – Australians, Canadians, Africans, Indians, Malays – frequently being viewed as second class citizens, Freeman seems to be remarkably colour-tolerant in this story. I wonder if this has to do with the large number of “Colonials” who fought in the First World War, still a very recent memory at the time this story was written, but it struck me as a refreshing attitude, given the fairly blatant racism of some contemporary stories (yes, Fu Manchu, I’m looking at you).

This is currently one of my favourite detective stories ever – probably better than Holmes. It’s stunningly well written, a good story and very cleverly plotted. It should be required reading for anyone who wants to write detective fiction. It just leaves one mystery to be solved – why aren’t these stories better known?

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