Dr. Thorndyke can be referred to as the first truly scientific detective. Sherlock Holmes demonstrably used scientific method, but with Thorndyke we actually get to know the detail of the experiments carried out, the scientific method, and the flaws where they exist. This is equally true when it comes to cracking cyphers, or reconstructing documents thought to be destroyed.

Unlike Holmes, Thorndyke does not demonstrate much in the way of idiosyncrasies, or have a particularly interesting life outside the application of scientific method, but this is more than made up for by his relentless determination to be exact in his experimentation and refusal to be diverted in any sense from the evidence before him. We often know the crime and the perpetrator at the beginning of an accounts of his exploits – it is how the conclusion is reached that grips the reader.

R. Austin Freeman himself wrote:

‘My subject is Dr. John Thorndyke, the hero or central character of most of my detective stories. So I'll give you a short account of his real origin; of the way in which he did in fact come into existence.

To discover the origin of John Thorndyke I have to reach back into the past for at least fifty years, to the time when I was a medical student preparing for my final examination. For reasons which I need not go into I gave rather special attention to the legal aspects of medicine and the medical aspects of law. And as I read my text-books, and especially the illustrative cases, I was profoundly impressed by their dramatic quality. Medical jurisprudence deals with the human body in its relation to all kinds of legal problems. Thus its subject matter includes all sorts of crime against the person and all sorts of violent death and bodily injury: hanging, drowning, poisons and their effects, problems of suicide and homicide, of personal identity and survivorship, and a host of other problems of the highest dramatic possibilities, though not always quite presentable for the purposes of fiction ……………………

But I think that the influence which finally determined the character of my detective stories, and incidentally the character of John Thorndyke, operated when I was working at the Westminster Ophthalmic Hospital. There I used to take the patients into the dark room, examine their eyes with the ophthalmoscope, estimate the errors of refraction, and construct an experimental pair of spectacles to correct those errors. When a perfect correction had been arrived at, the formula for it was embodied in a prescription which was sent to the optician who made the permanent spectacles.

Now when I was writing those prescriptions it was borne in on me that in many cases, especially the more complex, the formula for the spectacles, and consequently the spectacles themselves, furnished an infallible record of personal identity. If, for instance, such a pair of spectacles should have been found in a railway carriage, and the maker of those spectacles could be found, there would be practically conclusive evidence that a particular person had travelled by that train ……………………..

I may begin by saying that he was not modelled after any real person. He was deliberately created to play a certain part, and the idea that was in my mind was that he should be such a person as would be likely and suitable to occupy such a position in real life. As he was to be a medico-legal expert, he had to be a doctor and a fully trained lawyer. On the physical side I endowed him with every kind of natural advantage. He is exceptionally tall, strong, and athletic because those qualities are useful in his vocation. For the same reason he has acute eyesight and hearing and considerable general manual skill, as every doctor ought to have. 

In appearance he is handsome and of an imposing presence, with a symmetrical face of the classical type and a Grecian nose. And here I may remark that his distinguished appearance is not merely a concession to my personal taste but is also a protest against the monsters of ugliness whom some detective writers have evolved.

These are quite opposed to natural truth. In real life a first-class man of any kind usually tends to be a good-looking man.

Mentally, Thorndyke is quite normal. He has no gifts of intuition or other supernormal mental qualities. He is just a highly intellectual man of great and varied knowledge with exceptionally acute reasoning powers and endowed with that invaluable asset, a scientific imagination (by a scientific imagination I mean that special faculty which marks the born investigator; the capacity to perceive the essential nature of a problem before the detailed evidence comes into sight). But he arrives at his conclusions by ordinary reasoning, which the reader can follow when he has been supplied with the facts; though the intricacy of the train of reasoning may at times call for an exposition at the end of the investigation.

Thorndyke has no eccentricities or oddities which might detract from the dignity of an eminent professional man, unless one excepts an unnatural liking for Trichinopoly cheroots. In manner he is quiet, reserved and self-contained, and rather markedly secretive, but of a kindly nature, though not sentimental, and addicted to occasional touches of dry humour. That is how Thorndyke appears to me.

As to his age. When he made his first bow to the reading public from the doorway of Number 4 King's Bench Walk he was between thirty-five and forty. As that was thirty years ago, he should now be over sixty-five. But he isn't. If I have to let him "grow old along with me" I need not saddle him with the infirmities of age, and I can (in his case) put the brake on the passing years. Probably he is not more than fifty after all!

Now a few words as to how Thorndyke goes to work. His methods are rather different from those of the detectives of the Sherlock Holmes school. They are more technical and more specialized. He is an investigator of crime but he is not a detective. The technique of Scotland Yard would be neither suitable nor possible to him. He is a medico-legal expert, and his methods are those of medico-legal science. In the investigation of a crime there are two entirely different methods of approach. One consists in the careful and laborious examination of a vast mass of small and commonplace detail: inquiring into the movements of suspected and other persons; interrogating witnesses and checking their statements particularly as to times and places; tracing missing persons, and so forth-the aim being to accumulate a great body of circumstantial evidence which will ultimately disclose the solution of the problem. It is an admirable method, as the success of our police proves, and it is used with brilliant effect by at least one of our contemporary detective writers. But it is essentially a police method.

The other method consists in the search for some fact of high evidential value which can be demonstrated by physical methods and which constitutes conclusive proof of some important point. This method also is used by the police in suitable cases. Finger-prints are examples of this kind of evidence, and another instance is furnished by the Gutteridge murder. Here the microscopical examination of a cartridge-case proved conclusively that the murder had been committed with a particular revolver; a fact which incriminated the owner of that revolver and led to his conviction.

This is Thorndyke's procedure. It consists in the interrogation of things rather than persons; of the ascertainment of physical facts which can be made visible to eyes other than his own. And the facts which he seeks tend to be those which are apparent only to the trained eye of the medical practitioner ………………


 The Dr. Thorndyke Series

  Title Alternative Year
1 The Red Thumb Mark   1907
2 John Thorndyke's Cases Dr. Thorndyke's Cases 1909
3 The Eye of Osiris The Vanishing Man 1911
4 The Mystery of 31, New Inn   1912
5 The Singing Bone The Adventures of Dr. Thorndyke 1912
6 A Silent Witness   1914
7 The Great Portrait Mystery   1918
8 Helen Vardon's Confession   1922
9 The Cat's Eye   1923
10 Dr. Thorndyke's Casebook The Blue Scarab 1923
11 The Mystery of Angelina Frood   1924
12 The Shadow of the Wolf   1925
13 The D'Arblay Mystery   1926
14 A Certain Dr. Thorndyke   1927
15 The Magic Casket   1927
16 The Puzzle Lock   1927
17 As a Thief in the Night   1928
18 Mr. Pottermack's Oversight   1930
19 Pontifex, Son & Thorndyke   1931
20 Dr. Thorndyke Intervenes   1933
21 For the Defence: Dr. Thorndyke   1934
22 The Penrose Mystery   1936
23 Felo De Se? Death at the Inn 1937
24 The Stoneware Monkey   1938
25 Mr. Polton Explains   1940
26 The Jacob St. Mystery The Unconscious Witness 1942