R AUSTIN FREEMAN – The Magic Casket

I have a confession to make. I’ve read quite a few of Freeman’s Dr Thorndyke stories and I’ve yet to find one that I didn’t like. I would probably go so far as to say that I prefer them to Holmes, although they share certain similarities, are strictly logical and all the clues are plausibly explained. I absolutely love them.

Thorndyke is a barrister at 5 King’s Bench Walk who practices medical jurisprudence, making him something of an English cross between Quincey MD and Perry Mason. He has a science lab in his chambers and is widely considered the paramount authority on his subject. Many of the stories, including this one, are set in the legal quarter of London, which is where I work – cue another unladylike squawk when Thorndyke & Company stride past the building where my office now is. Clearly, I need to get out more.

The plot to this story sounds horrifically complex but is, in fact, actually quite simple. A woman is robbed of an apparently priceless string of Imperial Russian pearls; the thief is apprehended and imprisoned, but dies in prison. The governor sends the woman a gift of a casket the prisoner made before he died; unglamorous, base metal with an etched brass bottom. Since then, she is stalked and occasionally attacked by Japanese criminals.

It takes Thorndyke no time at all to establish that the casket holds the clue to the location of the missing pearls, and retrieves them at the end with a theatrical flourish. Every clue is explained, every deduction is logically accounted for and the whole thing feels entirely believable.

Given how popular the Holmes stories are, I’m amazed these aren’t better known. They are brilliantly written, great fun to read and deeply satisfying. I feel obliged to recommend them in the strongest possible terms.

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