Tuesday, June 13, 2017

VERDICT OF US ALL: The Shadow of the Wolf - R. Austin Freeman

JJ at "The Invisible Event" has revived the once somewhat regular meme on the vintage mystery blogs in which participants ramble on a particular topic. This month we talk about our favorite book by a writer who we don't care for or have avoided over time because we just don't like his or her style of mystery writing. Took me a while to come up with one for this because most bad mystery writers in my experience don't really have much to recommend in their overall work unless you want to read the books as self-parodies or "Alternative Classics." But that's not the point of this week's topic. So I had to reach back in time to remember one single book by a writer who I just don't read anymore because... well... frankly he bores me to death. And that's R. Austin Freeman.

Freeman as we all know was a pioneer in the scientific detective short story and also the inverted detective story. He also wrote several inverted detective novels but only one of them stands out in my mind as something rather remarkable. The Shadow of the Wolf (1928) is one of his more complex mystery novels loaded with the kind of arcane scientific talk (like a long dissertation on the formation of barnacles on a ship) that aid Dr. John Thorndyke in tracking down his elusive murderous prey. And yet despite what might have been yet another droning, boring book I found it utterly fascinating. There's a paradox worthy of Father Brown. It's one of the few Thorndyke novels that I found truly suspenseful. Another of Freeman's inverted detective novels we therefore know the identity of the murderer in The Shadow of the Wolf from the outset. Thorndyke's methods, however, are so odd and unusual in this novel, a nautical mystery about ships and the sea, that I was transfixed. I tend to write a lot about the "Things I Learned" in books of this type and there is a lot to fill the head of the insatiably curious reader in The Shadow of the Wolf.

I rarely go back to Freeman's books because they belong to an old-fashioned type of detective story that no longer excites me. His obsession with all things related to Egyptology gets tiresome; his characters don't ring true as human beings to me; and his often stodgy prose hasn't aged well. But I will always recommend The Shadow of the Wolf for its faster than normal pace (for Freeman, that is), its unusual subject matter, and a story that unravels with true suspense and a couple of thrilling surprises.


  1. John: I've just started reading Freeman in the last year or so (after reading one book way back in the mists of time). I've enjoyed most of them, but can definitely see that his Egypt-obsession might become tiresome.

  2. I read a few of his when I was in my teens, but none since so I suspect I'm with you on this. Never even heard of this one before chum - sop consider me introgued! Thanks for the recommendation John.

  3. I find myself reading one or two of his books a year. I've enjoyed them in small doses but probably would tire of them soon if I read too many.

  4. I haven't got on with Freeman at all in the past, now I can't decide whether you have tempted me enough to try this one...
    Meanwhile, I have just posted on the Mystery of the Missing Book, which I discovered via your blog a while back...

  5. Not a favorite of mine, either, but I do like the cover on this one.

  6. I agree with you about Freeman; his emphasis on scientific evidence tends to kill dramatic tension. However, if you like this one you might also like his novel 'Mr Pottermack's oversight', another inverted mystery which actually kept me reading to the end.

    1. Is that the one with the sun dial? I read that one and that's my second favorite of his novels. I think THE RED THUMB MARK, his first Thorndyke novel, is overrated for the reason you mention in your comment. The most unusual book he wrote is that bizarre collection of interrelated stories THE UTTERMOST FARTHING which was extremely difficult to get a hold of for me many years ago, but now is free at Project Gutenberg. Lovers of macabre crime fiction ought to check out that book.

  7. I have one or maybe two books from this author on my Kindle, but they languish. I'll probably read them at some point but I don't seem to be in any hurry. As per usual, John, I enjoyed your review and learned a thing or two. I haven't decided how I feel about 'inverted' mysteries yet. I'm thinking I don't like knowing who the killer is up front, but maybe that's because I haven't read any book using this technique that has changed my mind - yet.

  8. To me the inverted detective story was an interesting gimmick, worth persisting with for perhaps one short story collection. He seemed to get totally obsessed with it though which is why I've avoided most of his later novels.

    I did love THE EYE OF OSIRIS.

  9. I enjoyed his shorter work, but in his novels he does get bogged down. I enjoyed The Uttermost Farthing, but as you say I won't be tracking his book down anytime soon.