[Portions of this essay appeared as the Editor’s Foreword to The MX Book of New Sherlock Holmes Stories – Part VI: Christmas Adventures (MX Publishing, 2016)]
“I had called upon my friend Sherlock Holmes upon the second morning after Christmas, with the intention of wishing him the compliments of the season.”
– “The Blue Carbuncle” The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
It has been said that Charles Dickens invented our modern idea of how to celebrate Christmas. In the early days of Victoria’s reign, Christmas was a subdued affair in England, a time for quiet reflection, worshiping at church, and staying around one’s hearth. But Dickens, perhaps trying to rewrite his own bleak childhood memories, almost single-handedly gave people the idea that December 25th was something more than another somber religious date on the calendar. It could be a time of festivity, of mystery and merriment and wonder.
In his first novel, The Pickwick Papers (1836-1837), which so captured England’s heart, Dickens portrays scenes of a season filled with holiday festivities and good will as the members of the Pickwick Club celebrate with their friends. And there is even a Christmas ghost story, in which a bitter old man is changed on Christmas Eve by a supernatural encounter. No, it’s not the more famous A Christmas Carol (1843), the story that everyone knows about Ebenezer Scrooge and his amazing redemption. Rather, it’s “The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton”, a shorter tale related by Mr. Wardle to the Pickwickians, in which bitter church sexton Gabriel Grub learns that “setting all the good of the world against the evil . . . it was a very decent and respectable world after all.”
Dickens refined his ideas of a proper Christmas, with decorations and singing and wishes for snow and a fat goose, in his later more famous story, wherein Ebenezer Scrooge is taken here and there across London and elsewhere, through his past, present, and future. It’s an amazing story that has resonated from the time it was written to the present day – so much so that it’s one of the most filmed of all narratives, with dozens upon dozens of adaptations. Some of the more notable are the musical version starring Albert Finney – a personal favorite of mine: “Thank you very much!”, the much grimmer variant with a heavy-set Scrooge played by George C. Scott (who also once played a mentally ill character who erroneously believed that he was Sherlock Holmes), the old classics with Alistair Sim or Reginald Owen (who listed among his many roles a heavy-set Holmes), and more recently that of Patrick Stewart and the unique animated version starring Jim Carrey.
Whenever one of these versions is on television, I have to stop and watch – not so much at this point to see the very familiar story, which I know by heart backwards and forwards, especially as I re-read A Christmas Carol nearly every December. No, the big reason that I watch now is to see how each of these films portrays the dark, narrow, and very atmospheric streets of Victorian London.
And since this essay is about Sherlock Holmes – and not Dickens (or Scrooge or even Gabriel Grub) – that seems to be a good place to begin the pivot to Our Heroes, the Detective and the Doctor.
Although Dickens was writing his great works decades before Holmes and Watson first appeared in print, fittingly in the Beeton’s Christmas Annual of 1887 . . .
Me posing with one of the original surviving Beeton's Christmas Annuals at From Gillette to Brett IV, September 12, 2014
. . . there are a great many similarities between the Dickensian London and that in which Holmes carried out his business. Can anyone doubt that the opium dens and the dangerous little streets along the Thames, so ably described in “The Man With the Twisted Lip”, weren’t directly related to the same vile alleys memorialized by Dickens? And the unique and larger-than-life people who wander through Dickens’s stories could be the very parents and grandparents of some of the clients and policemen and Irregulars who climbed the seventeen steps to Holmes and Watson’s Baker Street sitting room.
So if one such as myself sees Dickens’s London and then looks for foreshadowing of that Great Cesspool that Watson described so well, then how can one not see a connection between that same kind of Dickensian Victorian Christmas and Sherlock Holmes?
The MX Book of New Sherlock Holmes Stories - Part V: Christmas Adventures
In autumn 2015, the first three simultaneously published volumes of The MX Book of New Sherlock Holmes Stories were published, with royalties going to the Stepping Stones School at Undershaw, one of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s former residences. While I’d initially conceived this collection as a one-time event, the processes were in place, and there was still a great deal of interest in additional volumes from both the contributors and the public. Therefore, another volume, Part IV: 2016 Annual, was published the following spring, and I realized that there seemed to be enough momentum to produce two collections per year. But if the spring book was the Annual edition, what might the fall version be?
The answer was almost immediate, and later that year we published Part V: Christmas Adventures, containing 30 new Holmes adventures, all set at Christmas.
The fat book included the following stories, and I still vividly remember receiving and reading each one of them for the first time:
• The Case of the Ruby Necklace – Bob Byrne
• The Jet Brooch – Denis O. Smith
• The Adventure of the Missing Irregular – Amy Thomas
• The Adventure of the Knighted Watchmaker – Derrick Belanger
• The Stolen Relic – David Marcum
• A Christmas Goose – C. H. Dye
• The Adventure of the Long-Lost Enemy – Marcia Wilson
• The Case of the Christmas Cracker – John Hall
• The Queen’s Writing Table – Julie McKuras
• The Blue Carbuncle – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Dramatised for Radio by Bert Coules)
• The Man Who Believed in Nothing – Jim French
• The Case of the Christmas Star – S.F. Bennett
• The Christmas Card Mystery – Narrelle M. Harris
• The Question of the Death Bed Conversion – William Patrick Maynard
• The Adventure of the Christmas Surprise – Vincent W. Wright
• A Bauble in Scandinavia – James Lovegrove
• The Adventure of Marcus Davery – Arthur Hall
• The Adventure of the Purple Poet – Nicholas Utechin
• The Adventure of the Empty Manger – Tracy J. Revels
• The Adventure of the Vanishing Man – Mike Chinn
• A Perpetrator in a Pear Tree – Roger Riccard
• The Case of the Christmas Trifle – Wendy C. Fries
• The Adventure of the Christmas Stocking – Paul D. Gilbert
• The Case of the Reformed Sinner – S. Subramanian
• The Adventure of the Golden Hunter – Jan Edwards
• The Curious Case of the Well-Connected Criminal – Molly Carr
• The Adventure of the Handsome Ogre – Matthew J. Elliott
• The Adventure of the Improbable Intruder – Peter K. Andersson
• The Adventure of the Deceased Doctor – Hugh Ashton
• The Mile End Mynah Bird – Mark Mower
I received a story from my favorite pasticheur Denis Smith, and more from masters like Hugh Ashton, Marcia Wilson, Paul Gilbert, Roger Riccard, Mark Mower, Derrick Belanger, John Hall, S.F. Bennett, and Arthur Hall. Cindy Dye reworked a story that had originally appeared online, as did Tracy Revels, and Matthew Elliott did the same with one of his scripts that had been previously broadcast on Imagination Theatre. We had a script from Imagination Theatre founder Jim French, and Bert Coules contributed his amazing BBC adaptation of “The Blue Carbuncle”. James Lovegrove and Vincent Wright each unknowingly wrote stories that paralleled each other, as did Bob Byrne and Denis Smith, and it was fun to let them reflect each other. The previous year, Nick Utechin had taken me on an incredible behind-the-scenes tour of Oxford (during my Holmes Pigrimage No. 2), and he set his story – knowing that it would especially amuse me personally – at the site of an Oxford artwork that we’d discussed during my visit. The book was rounded out by wonderful and atmospheric contributions from Amy Thomas, Julie McKuras, Narrelle Harris, William Patrick Maynard (the authorized continuer of the adventures of Denis Nayland-Smith!), Mike Chinn, Subbu Subramanian, Jan Edward, Peter Andersson, Molly Carr, and me. The amazing cover was reworked from a seasonal John Atkinson Grimshaw painting by Brian Belanger. I was thrilled to be a part of it!
The cover . . .
. . . was taken from Grimshaw's atmospheric painting The Old Hall Under Moonlight (1882). . .
. . . and here, for comparison, is my initial mark-up for Brian Belanger to use in his much-improved finished product:
[For more about John Atkinson Grimshaw and his amazing suitability for Sherlock Holmes book covers, please see my blog entry: http://17stepprogram.blogspot.com/2018/06/sherlock-holmes-and-john-atkinson.html]
Of course, having stories about Holmes at Christmas isn’t a new idea. The original Canon story “The Blue Carbuncle” is often considered to be the Holmes Christmas adventure.
However, many forget (or gloss over) the fact that it actually occurs “on the second morning after Christmas”, or December 27th. (I subscribe to the Baring-Gould dating of December 27, 1887, as it solves a number of chronological problems.)
This is as close as we get to Christmas in The Canon, except for one reference in “The Speckled Band”, when Helen Stoner’s sister, Julia, went to Harrow at Christmastime two years before the events of the story in order to visit a maiden aunt. To cement the Christmas connections within "The Blue Carbuncle", most media adaptations, including Bert Coules' for the BBC broadcast and different television presentions, slide it to December 25th, including the 1968 version with Peter Cushing and Nigel Stock . . .
. . . and the very satisfying Granada version starring Jeremy Brett and David Burke (1984):
(Sadly, except for a few stand-alone Holmes films and some efforts by Russian television, there have been no Sherlock Holmes television series whatsoever since the Jeremy Brett programs ended in 1994. It's been far too long since we've seen Sherlock Holmes on television.)
I myself have been quite fortunate to have had a small encounter with the carbuncle, the goose, and the detective, again during Holmes Pilgrimage No. 2, when I was allowed to spend several hours in the museum of The Sherlock Holmes Pub, exploring to my heart's content . . . .
There are many other tales telling what Mr. Holmes of Baker Street was up to during those various Christmases in the latter decades of the Nineteenth Century, and so on into the Twentieth. An important set that must come to mind are those two well-known and highly respected volumes, Holmes for the Holidays (1996) and More Holmes for the Holidays (1999), each edited by the late Martin H. Greenberg, Jon L. Lellenberg, and Carol-Lynn Waugh.
Containing fourteen and eleven stories respectively, these were the first anthologies of their kind to feature stories specifically sharing Holmes’s Christmas-related cases. (There are even a couple of tales that feature descendants of individuals involved in A Christmas Carol.)I remember how enthusiastic I was when I first discovered Holmes for the Holidays on a book store shelf. This was in those dark days when finding new stories about The Master was almost always a surprise, a rare and difficult thing, as one couldn’t learn the release dates for upcoming Holmes books for the next year simply by looking on the internet – one had to rely on frequent trips to the bookstore and serendipity.
Two of the stories in these volumes, “The Christmas Client” and “The Christmas Conspiracy” were by Edward D. Hoch, and they were later reprinted in a collection of his own, The Sherlock Holmes Stories of Edward D. Hoch:
In addition to these fine additions to any Holmes library, there have been a number of other stories spread throughout different collections. Probably the best of them, and well worth seeking out, is Denis O. Smith’s “The Christmas Visitor” (1985, 1998).
Val Andrews brought us one of his finer efforts in Sherlock Holmes and the Yule-Tide Mystery (1996), a very interesting and rollicking case set around a Victorian Christmas.
One of the best of the Holmes pasticheurs is Roger Riccard who, in addition to a several other works, produced the amazing two-volume collection, Sherlock Holmes: Adventures for the Twelve Days of Christmas (2015), and Sherlock Holmes: Further Adventures for the Twelve Days of Christmas (2016). Each book (now released as a combined volume on Kindle) has six stories. All have some connection to the famed gifts that were given over the twelve days, but none of these are cliché, and each will surprise the reader with its originality.
A novel set at Christmas in a country house, with a very dark conclusion, is Laurie R. King’s Justice Hall (2002).
As mentioned in an earlier essay, I – and a number of other Sherlockians – have a great deal of difficulty with the supposed marriage between Holmes and the much younger narrator of these books, Mary Russell. However, by using the solution proposed in my blog entry “Necessary Rationalizations”, even those who object to Mary Russell’s delusional romance can enjoy this book:
Along with these other volumes, some lesser-known novels about Holmes and Watson's Yuletide adventures include Sherlock Holmes’s Christmas (2005) by David Upton and A Christmas to Forget at 221b (2002) by Hugh A. Milligan.
There are a number of stand-alone short-stories with Christmas settings in various collections. Some of these include “Fulworth Christmas” by Karl Showler in Sherlock Holmes and the Watson Pastiche (2005), and “The Vanishing Diamonds” in A Julian Symons Duet. This latter story also has the fun of a possible encounter between Holmes and another of my favorite book-friends, Hercule Poirot.
“A Christmas Story” is in The Chemical Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (2009) by Thomas G. Waddell and Thomas R. Rybolt. (The stories in this oversized spiral-bound edition were originally published over approximately fifteen years in The Journal of Chemical Education, and I had a blast tracking them down as each new one came out.)
“A Christmas Interlude” in The Singular Exploits of Sherlock Holmes (2012) by Alan Stockwell. This is a companion volume to his earlier The Singular Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (2003). Sadly, when I asked Mr. Stockwell to contribute a new story to an MX Anthology, he informed me that he had related all that he had regarding Mr. Holmes. However, hopefully someday another tale will surface, because he’s very good at it.
In "A Gentleman's Disagreement", the first story in Sherlock Holmes: Adventures Beyond the Canon - Volume I (2018), Narrelle Harris offers a sequel to "The Blue Carbuncle" that begins at the exact moment the earlier story ends, telling what else happened that night . . . .
“A Ballad of the White Plague” by P.C. Hodgel in The Confidential Casebook of Sherlock Holmes (1997)is a very strange tale, recalled by Holmes for Watson in 1902, of when he and his father made a very strange visit to an old house during Christmas 1862, when Holmes was not-quite eight years old.
“Green and Red Trappings” by Valerie J. Patterson in Curious Incidents 2 (2002), edited by Jeff Campbell and Charles Prepolec. The second of two wonderful collections of traditional pastiches. More please!
“Christmas Eve” by Sherlockian S.C. Roberts in Ellery Queen’s famed The Misadventures of Sherlock Holmes (1944). As can be seen here, my edition has no dust jacket. If there's a Secret Santa out there with two of them and doesn't know what to do with the second . . . .
N.M. Scott has provided two stand-alone Christmas tales, one, "A Case at Christmas" in his collection A Case at Christmas and Other New Adventures(2016), and "Christmas on Dartmoor" in To A Country House Darkly and Other New Adventures (2017).
The late Frank Thomas, who wrote a number of really fun traditional pastiches, has a story, “Sherlock’s Christmas Gift”, in his collection The Secret Files of Sherlock Holmes (2002).
Other tales include Paul E. Heusinger’s “Christmas Truce” in The Secret Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (2006), and “The Matter of the Christmas Gift” in Watson’s Sampler (2007) by William F. Watson, Jr.
Then there’s “The Adventure of the Christmas Smoke” by David Rowbotham, in Tales from the Stranger’s Room (2011) Profits from this book and its sequel, edited by David Ruffle, go to support The Beacon Society.
Quite recently, Thomas Mann has published A Christmas Carol at 221b (2018). In Holmes for the Holidays and More Holmes for the Holidays, Our Heroes encountered the descendants of the characters from A Christmas Carol. In this slim volume, Holmes relates how he met Ebenezer Scrooge when he was quite young. (There have been several Holmes Christmas stories where Holmes himself is visited by the Three Ghosts of Christmas, but these are not included in this essay, as they are merely whimsical Alternate Universe fictions.)
Several Holmes Christmas stories have appeared in magazines, including in these issues of The Strand . . .
“The Christmas Poisonings” by Barrie Roberts (Issue 7)
“The Affair of the Christmas Jewel” by Barrie Roberts (Issue 9)
“The Ghoast of Christmas Past” by David Stuart Davies (Issue 23).
. . . and in Sherlock Magazine:
“The Christmas Bauble” by John Hall
“Watson’s Christmas Trick” by Bob Byrne.
John Hall’s “The Christmas Bauble” was also broadcast by Imagination Theatre on December 25th, 20015, and Bob Byrne’s “Watson’s Christmas Trick” has been reworked as a Solar Pons adventure, and included in The New Adventures of Solar Pons (2018, 2019)
Gwendolyn Frame published Have Yourself A Chaotic Little Christmas (2012), collecting a series of Christmas stories that she had published on-line under the sobriquet "Aleine Skyfire".
There have been many Holmes Christmas Adventures published on-line in the form of fan-fiction. Some is incredible, and some not so great. However, all of it must not be ignored just because some of it is bad. To do so cheats the friends of Mr. Sherlock Holmes of some of his best adventures. I’ve collected several hundred on-line Christmas tales (so far) and there are more appearing even as I write this. What I have has been archived in these two giant binders, and it’s definitely time to invest in a third:
With all of these written documents that relate Holmes Christmas adventures, one must not forget the stories that have appeared in other mediums. For instance, there is Young Sherlock Holmes (1985) - both film and novel.
Although not specifically a Christmas story, the holiday pervades the film. For more about it, including the true identity of the young fellow who hallucinates vicious cream pies, see my blog entry, “Actually, That Wasn’t Watson”
On April 4th, 1955, an episode of Sherlock Holmes starring Ronald Howard and H. Marion Crawford entitled "The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding" followed a killer's attempted revenge against Holmes during the holidays.
There have also been several Holmes radio shows with Christmas themes. Perhaps the most famous is “The Night Before Christmas” (December 24, 1945), starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce:
And then, a couple of years later, was “The Adventure of the Christmas Bride” (December 21, 1947) starring John Stanley and Alfred Shirley:
Beyond Holmes . . . .
If those Holmes stories aren’t enough for you, there are a few others starring some of the other great detectives. For instance, there's the classic Nero Wolfe case "Christmas Party", originally published in Collier's magazine in January 1957 - here's the illustration:
. . . and then collected in And Four To Go (1958)
The 2001 A&E version starring Maury Chaykin and Timothy Hutton did a pretty good job of adapting it . . . .
Ellery Queen’s “The Adventure of the Dauphin’s Doll” in Calendar of Crime (1952) is a wonderful seasonal adventure. His Cat of Many Tales (1949), while mostly set in the hot New York Summer of 1948, has some amazing Christmas bustle at the end, and The Foruth Side of the Triangle (1965) has some in the middle. “The Tragedy of Errors” and “The Reindeer Clue” both in The Tragedy of Errors (1999) have scenes set around Christmas. His greatest work, Calamity Town (1942), also has some Christmas scenes. And on the Eight Day (1964) begins around Christmas-time 1943 and leads to one of Ellery’s most surreal cases. The Finishing Stroke (1958) has perhaps the most puzzling Christmas mystery of them all. And then there’s The Egyptian Cross Mystery (1932), which might be the most gruesome.
Hercule Poirot, while not having as many adventures set at Christmas, does have a few, as shown here from my collection. Most notable is Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (1938), a great bloody mess in the best sense. And then there is “The Christmas Pudding”, later rewritten as “The Adventure of the Royal Ruby”.
Here's Hercule Poirot's Christmas . . .
. . . and "The Christmas Pudding":
For one of the most atmospheric Christmas stories in the Sherlockian style, look no further than the Solar Pons adventure, “The Adventure of the Unique Dickensians”, contained in The Chronicles of Solar Pons (1973). This story has it all – Holmesian adventure and references to Charles Dickens who, as mentioned at the beginning of this essay, has been said to be the man who invented our modern idea of Christmas.
To sum up . . . .
These are definitely not all of the Holmes adventures related to Christmas, but they are a good start. These, along with the Christmas tales of some of my other best book-friends, will keep you in the spirit for quite a while.
While Dickens may have defined how we think of Christmas, one of the best places to spend it is at 221b Baker Street, in the company of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. I wish you the Merriest of Christmases - whatever time of year you might encounter this essay!
NOTE: The silhouette illustration of Holmes and Watson appears in The Illustrated Sherlock Holmes (Canterbury Classics, 2013)
Monday, December 24, 2018
Tuesday, November 13, 2018
[The following is modified from the Editor’s Forewords to forthcoming volumes in "The Complete Dr. Thorndyke”]
When Sherlock Holmes began his practice as a “Consulting Detective”, his ideas of scientific criminal investigations caused the London police to look upon him as a mere “theorist”. He was perceived as an amateur to be tolerated, often with amusement – until, that is, his assistance was required. Then they were more than willing to come knocking upon his door, asking for whatever help that they could receive. And usually this help took the form of brilliant solutions to bizarre and otherwise insoluble problems.
Holmes espoused methods and ideas that were considered ludicrous in the late 1800’s. For instance, his frustration knew no bounds when a crime scene was disturbed. Holmes realized that so much could be determined from the physical evidence – footprints, fibers, and spatters. The police were happy to trod into and disturb the evidence as if they were herds of field beasts, with the equivalent level of intelligence.
However, Holmes’s methods, and the science behind catching criminals, eventually won out and became so important that it’s hard to now imagine the world without them. Many of the exact same techniques and methods that he advocated are now standard practice. From being an amateur with unusual ideas, Holmes is now recognized around the world as The Great Detective. In 2002, Holmes received a posthumous Honorary Fellowship from the British Royal Society of Chemistry, based on the fact that he was beyond his time in using chemistry and chemical sciences as a means of solving crimes.
And before that, in 1985, Scotland Yard introduced HOLMES (Home Office Large Major Enquiry System), an elaborate computer system designed to process the masses of information collected and evaluated during a criminal investigation, in order to ensure that no vital clues are overlooked. This system, providing total compatibility and consistency between all the police forces of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, as well as the Royal Military Police, has since been upgraded by the improved HOLMES 2 – and like the first version, there is absolutely no doubt as to who is being honored and memorialized for his work in dragging criminology out of the dark ages.
Many famous Great Detectives followed in Holmes’s footsteps – Nero Wolfe and Ellery Queen, Hercule Poirot and Solar Pons – each with their own methods and techniques, but before they began their careers, and while Holmes was still in practice in Baker Street, another London consultant – Dr. John Thorndyke – opened his doors, using the scientific methods developed and perfected by Holmes and taking them to a whole new level of brilliance.
Meet Dr. Thorndyke
Dr. John Evelyn Thorndyke was born on July 4th, 1870. We don’t know about where he was raised, or if he has any family. At no point will we be introduced to a more brilliant brother who sometimes is the British Government. He was educated at the medical school of St. Margaret’s Hospital in London, and while there, he met fellow student Christopher Jervis. They became friends but, after completing school in 1895, they lost touch with one another. Over the next six years, Thorndyke remained at St. Margaret’s, taking on various jobs, hanging “about the chemical and physical laboratories, the museum and post mortem room,” and learning what he could. He obtained his M.D. and his Doctor of Sciences, and then was called to the bar in 1896.
He’d prepared himself with the hope of obtaining a position as a coroner, but he learned of the unexpected retirement of one of St. Margaret’s lecturers in medical jurisprudence. He applied for the position and, rather to his own surprise, it was awarded to him. (He would continue to maintain his association with the hospital, going on to become the Medical Registrar, Pathologist, Curator of the Museum, and then Professor of Medical Jurisprudence, all while maintaining his own private consulting practice.
It was when Thorndyke was named lecturer that he obtained his chambers at 5A King’s Bench Walk, in the Inner Temple, that amazing and historic area between Fleet Street and the River. Founded over eight-hundred years ago by the Knights Templar, it is one of the four Inns of Court, (along with the Middle Temple, Lincoln’s Inn, and Gray’s Inn.) The buildings along King’s Bench Walk, and particularly No.’s 4, 5, and 6, have a great deal of historical significance – and not just because Dr. John Thorndyke practiced at 5A for a number of years.
Thorndyke was quite fortunate to obtain a suite of rooms on multiple floors at this location, which leads to speculation about his influence and resources – a question which has no answer. In any case, it was there that he opened his practice and began to wait for clients and cases. He also made the acquaintance of elderly Nathaniel Polton, that man-of-all-work with the crinkly smile who ran the household, as well as Thorndyke’s upstairs laboratory.
Like Sherlock Holmes during those early years in the 1870’s when he had rooms in Montague Street next to the British Museum and spent his vast amounts of free time learning his craft, Thorndyke also found a way to make the empty hours more useful. He had the unique idea of imagining increasingly complex crimes – often a murder or series of them, for instance – and then, when he had planned every single aspect of the crime, he would turn around and work out the solution from the other side. While doing this, he made extensive notes of each of these theoretical exercises, and retained them for their later usefulness when encountering real-life crimes.
His first legal case was Regina v Gummer in 1897. Sadly, no further information about this affair is ever revealed to us, but we may be certain that Thorndyke used his considerable skills to bring it to a satisfactory conclusion, adding to his reputation as he did so.
In the meantime, Jervis had a more unfortunate story. As his time at school ended, his funds ran out rather unexpectedly, and after paying his various fees, he was left with earning his living as a medical assistant, or sometimes serving as a locum tenens, moving from one low-paying and temporary job to another, with no prospects of improvement.
Jervis is unemployed on the morning of March 22nd, 1901 when he encounters Thorndyke a few doors up from 5A King’s Bench Walk. The two friends are happy to see one another, and before long, Jervis is involved in an investigation that will change his life in several ways, as recounted in The Red Thumb Mark.
But it should not be assumed that every Thorndyke adventure is narrated by Jervis in a typical Watsonian manner. In fact, the very next book, The Eye of Osiris, is instead told from the perspective of one of Thorndyke’s students, Dr. Paul Berkeley. It is one of several that provide a look at Thorndyke – and Jervis – from a different perspective. But Jervis returns as narrator in the third novel, The Mystery of 31 New Inn, and we see Thorndyke through his eyes for a good many of both the novels and short stories.
5A King's Bench Walk in the late 1890's,
when Thorndyke would have moved in . . . .
Here a word might be mentioned about the Chronology of the Thorndyke stories. For some this is an irrelevant factor, but for others – like me – understanding the correct chronological placement of the stories is very important. Like the volumes that make up the Sherlock Holmes Canon, the Thorndyke stories aren’t published in chronological order – A case set in 1907 (such as “Percival Bland’s Proxy”) might be collected before one that occurs in 1908, (“The Missing Mortgagee”), or it might not. For instance, The Red Thumb Mark (1907) is set in March and April 1901. (This chronological placement, by the way, is determined by noticing that a specific date is given three times in the book – in the British fashion of day before month – 9.3.01 – or March 9th, 1901. The dates for the events of the rest of the book can be carefully worked out from this fixed point.)
The next book, The Eye of Osiris (1911) is primarily set in the summer of 1904 (with Chapter 1, something of a prologue, taking place in late 1902.) Then, the next book to follow, The Mystery of 31 New Inn (1912), jumps back to the spring of 1902, about a year after the events of The Red Thumb Mark, and before The Eye of Osiris. And one of the short stories, “The Man With the Nailed Shoes” occurs in September and October 1901, between the first two books. Clearly, there is a great deal of material for the chronologicist in the Thorndyke Chronicles.
As Jervis becomes a part of Thorndyke’s world, following their reacquaintance in March 1901, he meets others in Thorndyke’s circle, including policemen such as Superintendent Miller and Inspector Badger, lawyers like Robert Anstey, Marchmont, and Brodribb, and other physicians like Dr. Paul Berkeley and Dr. Humphrey Jardine. He also has more opportunity to learn from his friend as he begins his own studies in order to become a similar specialist in the medico-legal practice – although he’ll never be another Thorndyke.
Through Jervis’s eyes – as well as others along the way – we build up our knowledge of Dr. Thorndyke. In appearance, he is tall and athletic, just under six feet in height, slender, and weighing around one-hundred-and-eighty pounds. He is exceptionally handsome – and has been called the handsomest detective in literature. He has no vices, except – perhaps – that he enjoys a Trichinopoly cigar upon occasion when he is feeling especially triumphant – although there is one time when the criminal’s knowledge of this fact leads to a clever attempt at Thorndyke’s murder . . . .
Dr. Thorndyke and Sherlock Holmes
There are several instances where Thorndyke displays a marked resemblance to Sherlock Holmes – and not just in his scientific approach to crime. The two men sometimes say similar things – such as when Holmes says "It is quite a pretty little problem." (in “A Scandal in Bohemia”) or “. . . there are some pretty little problems among them””(in “The Musgrave Ritual”). Thorndyke mimics this in Felo de Se? (“There, Jervis,” said he, “is quite a pretty little problem for you to excogitate”) or “Ah, there is a very pretty little problem for you to consider” (in The Eye of Osiris).
And who can forget the many instances when Holmes refers to data:
• “It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.” – “A Scandal in Bohemia”
• “I had,” said he, “come to an entirely erroneous conclusion which shows, my dear Watson, how dangerous it always is to reason from insufficient data.” – “The Speckled Band”
• “No data yet,” he answered. “It is a capital mistake to theorize before you have all the evidence. It biases the judgment.” – A Study in Scarlet
• “The temptation to form premature theories upon insufficient data is the bane of our profession.” – The Valley of Fear
• “Still, it is an error to argue in front of your data.” – “Wisteria Lodge”
And what about Thorndyke’s version?
“. . . believe me, it is a capital error to decide beforehand what data are to be sought for." – from The Mystery of 31 New Inn. There are others.
Then there is Holmes’s quote from “The Man With the Twisted Lip”:
“You have a grand gift of silence, Watson,” said he. “It makes you quite invaluable as a companion.”
Here’s the Thorndyke equivalent:
“It has just been borne in upon me, Jervis,” said he, “that you are the most companionable fellow in the world. You have the heaven-sent gift of silence.”
And then there is the time, in “The Anthropologist at Large”, that a client – expecting a Holmes-like performance as based on “The Blue Carbuncle” – presents Thorndyke with an object for examination:
“I understand,” said he, “that by examining a hat it is possible to deduce from it, not only the bodily characteristics of the wearer, but also his mental and moral qualities, his state of health, his pecuniary position, his past history, and even his domestic relations and the peculiarities of his place of abode. Am I right in this supposition?”
The ghost of a smile flitted across Thorndyke’s face as he laid the hat upon the remains of the newspaper. “We must not expect too much,” he observed. “Hats, as you know, have a way of changing owners . . . .”
Another area of intersection between Holmes and Thorndyke is the assembly of information. Recall Holmes’s “ponderous commonplace books in which he placed his cuttings” as mentioned in “The Engineer’s Thumb”. We find, also in “The Anthropologist at Large”, that Thorndyke does the same thing:
[H]is method of dealing with [the morning newspaper] was characteristic. The paper was laid on the table after breakfast, together with a blue pencil and a pair of office shears. A preliminary glance through the sheets enabled him to mark with the pencil those paragraphs that were to be read, and these were presently cut out and looked through, after which they were either thrown away or set aside to be pasted in an indexed book.
No doubt and examination of Thorndyke’s lodgings at 5A King’s Bench Walk would reveal – in addition to a series of indexed commonplace books filled with clippings – a number of other items and aspects that would remind one of 221b Baker Street.
Like many locations where the detective’s residence is almost a character in and of itself – Sherlock Holmes’s London address at 221 Baker Street, and the New York homes of Ellery Queen on West 87th Street and Nero Wolfe’s Brownstone on West 35th Street – Thorndyke’s rooms at 5A King’s Bench Walk are a living and vibrant place – from the entry way, where a heavy door known as “The Oak” leads visitors into a most comfortable wood-paneled sitting room, located on the (British) first floor, one flight up from the ground floor. On the next floor up, Polton has his laboratory and workshop, containing everything that is needed (or what might be manufactured) in order to solve the case.
On the next floor, underneath the attic, are bedrooms belonging to Thorndyke, Jervis, and Polton. Even after Jervis has married – and now you know that he does get married! – he continues to reside a good deal of the time in King’s Bench Walk. As he explains in When Rogues Fall Out (1932, with the U.S. title of Dr. Thorndyke’s Discovery):
Here, perhaps, since my records of Thorndyke’s practice have contained so little reference to my own personal affairs, I should say a few words concerning my domestic habits. As the circumstances of our practice often made it desirable for me to stay late at our chambers, I had retained there the bedroom that I had occupied before my marriage; and, as these circumstances could not always be foreseen, I had arranged with my wife the simple rule that the house closed at eleven o’clock. If I was unable to get home by that time, it was to be understood that I was staying at the Temple. It may sound like a rather undomestic arrangement, but it worked quite smoothly, and it was not without its advantages. For the brief absence gave to my homecomings a certain festive quality, and helped to keep alive the romantic element in my married life. It is possible for the most devoted husbands and wives to see too much of one another.
5A King's Bench Walk circa 1900 . . . .
Thorndyke’s Other Appearances
Through the years, Thorndyke’s reputation continues to grow, as presented through a number of adventures. Surprisingly, in light of the tens of thousands of Post-Canonical Sherlock Holmes that have come to light over the years, as discovered by latter-day Literary Agents taking over Watson’s first Literary Agent, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, stopped literary-agenting, there have been almost no additional Thorndyke cases brought to the public’s attention. The few exceptions to this statement are Goodbye, Dr. Thorndyke (1972) by Norman Donaldson, and Dr. Thorndyke’s Dilemma (1974) by John H. Dirckx. Both narratives deal with Thorndyke and Jervis in their latter years, and each is written by an expert in the field of Thorndyke scholarship.
Donaldson also wrote what might be the final scholarly word on the subject, In Search of Dr. Thorndyke (1971). In fact, he had intended his pastiche, Goodbye, Dr. Thorndyke, to be published as the conclusion to this book, but it ended up appearing separately.
To my knowledge, “The Great Fathomer”, as Thorndyke is sometimes known, has rarely appeared in other locations. He is mentioned in the Solar Pons tale “The Adventure of the Proper Comma” by August Derleth, which finds Dr. Parker returning “from Thorndyke & Polton with an analysis of the capsules Mrs. Buxton had carried with her . . . .”
In my own book of authorized Solar Pons stories, The Papers of Solar Pons (2017), Thorndyke makes two appearances. “The Adventure of the Additional Heirs” has Pons and Parker visiting King’s Bench Walk:
At 5A, we learned that our friend Thorndyke, the medical juris-practitioner, was out on some investigation or other, but Pons handed the papers, sans photograph, into the care of Polton, his crinkly-faced laboratory technician, with a detailed explanation of what he wished to learn. The man nodded and smiled, and without any extraneous chit-chat, shut the door, freeing us to return to Fleet Street. We paused at the edge of the walk to look at the photograph, still in Pons’s hand.
Later Thorndyke sends Pons a detailed report that helps toward the solution of the problem. And in “The Affair of the Distasteful Society”, set in July 1921, Pons and Parker attend the first meeting of a group gathered to honor Sherlock Holmes, where the following conversation occurs:
“I see that you invited Thorndyke, and that little Belgian over on Farraway Street,” said Rath.
“And Sexton Blake as well,” replied Sir Amory.
“Sexton Blake is a fictional character, Sir Amory,” said Pons with a smile.
In my story, “The Adventure of the Two Sisters”, to be included in an upcoming Solar Pons anthology, Dr. Parker writes:
Pons was not the only detective who offered his services to the London populace, although he might have been the most well-known. We were friends with several others, including the former Belgian policeman who lived in Farraway Street, and another rather mysterious fellow in nearby Bottle Street. And of course, Pons went way back with Thorndyke, whose chambers were across town. It wasn’t unusual for Pons and the others to regularly confer on investigations, or simply to sit down and share a few drinks and professional anecdotes.
Thorndyke doesn’t just appear in some of my Solar Pons adventures. He’s also been referenced off-stage in a couple of Sherlock Holmes adventures that I’ve pulled from Watson’s Tin Dispatch Box – and it’s more than likely that others will follow. In “The “London Wheel”, contained in The MX Book of New Sherlock Holmes Stories – Part IV: 2016 Annual (2016), Holmes, looking through some documents, states:
“I believe,” said Holmes, “that I have enough amateur legal training that I can get a sense of the implications of the clauses in question in both of these documents.” He pulled the folded pages from his pocket. “I thought about sending a message to my protégé Thorndyke in King's Bench Walk for his opinion, as he could have been here very quickly, should he be at home at all and not out on his own business. However, I don’t believe that will be necessary.
Perhaps it is a point of interest that Thorndyke is referred to Holmes’s protégé. Possibly more information will be forthcoming, such as that which is hinted in my forthcoming story, “The Coombs Contrivance”. Set in 1889, when Thorndyke was nineteen years old, Holmes and Watson are discussing a precocious Baker Street Irregular:
[Holmes] pinched the bridge of his nose. “Do you trust Levi’s judgment, Watson?”
I considered. “For an eight-year-old, he’s remarkable perceptive – as much as any of the other Irregulars who have assisted you. The Wiggins family, or the Peakes, or Thorndyke, before he went away to university.”
So was Thorndyke, perhaps, a gifted Irregular who learned from The Master, and then went on to create his own successful practice, taking what he learned to a next very successful level? Possibly. As Robert Downey, Jr. succinctly stated when playing Holmes in 2009’s Sherlock Holmes: “Food for thought!”
Thorndyke is also mentioned in Bob Byrne’s Holmes story, “The Adventure of the Parson’s Son” (The MX Book of New Sherlock Holmes Stories – Part III: 1896-1929), wherein Holmes, examining a piece of evidence, cries:
“Ha! I believe we have discredited the coat entirely. Though I wish I could get Thorndyke to examine it. Would that we were back in London.”
And it isn’t just Thorndyke who has appeared elsewhere. His lawyer friend Marchmont has assisted Holmes and Watson in a small way a couple of my own forthcoming adventures, Sherlock Holmes and The Eye of Heka and “The Coombs Contrivance”.
Although I have encouraged these Thorndyke cameos in my own stories or in Holmes and Pons books that I edit, his appearances elsewhere are much more fleeting. In the 2015 BBC radio series The Rivals, Inspector Lestrade, Holmes’s most frequent associate at Scotland Yard, is placed into the events of the Thorndyke short story “The Moabite Cipher”. And Thorndyke has only had a handful of other media appearances. In 1964, the BBC produced seven episodes (now lost) of Thorndyke, starring Peter Copley. The episodes were:
• “The Case of Oscar Brodski’
• “The Old Lag”
• “A Case of Premeditation”
• “The Mysterious Visitor”
• “The Case of Phyllis Annesley” – Adapted from “Phyllis Annesley’s Peril”
• “Percival Bland’s Brother” – Adapted from “Percival Bland’s Proxy”
• “The Puzzle Lock”
From 1971 to 1973, Thames TV aired The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes, and two stories were adapted: “A Message from the Deep Sea” starring John Neville (who had also played Holmes in 1965’s A Study in Terror), and “The Moabite Cipher” starring Barrie Ingram. Except for a 1963 BBC Radio adaption of Mr. Pottermack’s Oversight, and a few on-air readings by a single performer, there have been no other Thorndyke adaptations – which is a terrible shame, as the stories certainly lend themselves to visual and audible interpretations. Perhaps a new generation will discover Thorndyke, Jervis, and the rest, and they will find popularity once again, as they did more than a century ago.
Copley, Neville, and Ingram as Thorndyke . . . .
A Few (Hundred) Words About R. Austin Freeman (Thorndyke’s Chronicler)
Richard Austin Freeman was born on April 11, 1862 in the Soho district of London. He was the son of a skilled tailor and the youngest of five children. As he grew, it was expected that he would become a tailor as well, but instead he had an interest in natural history and medicine, and so he obtained employment in a pharmacist’s shop. While there, he qualified as an apothecary and could have gone on to manage the shop, but instead he began to study medicine at Middlesex Hospital.
Austin Freeman qualified as a physician in 1887, and in that same year he married. Faced with the twin facts of his new marital responsibilities and his very limited resources as a young doctor, he made the unusual decision to join the Colonial Service, spending the next seven years in Africa as an Assistant Colonial Surgeon. This continued until the early 1890’s, when he contracted Blackwater Fever, an illness that eventually forced him to leave the service and return permanently to England.
For several years, he served as a locum tenens for various physicians, a bleak time in his life as he moved from job to job, his income low, and his health never quite recovered. (These experiences were reflected in the narratives of Doctors Jervis and Berkeley.) However, he supplemented his meager income and exercised his creativity during these years by beginning to write. His early publications included Travels and Live in Ashanti and Jaman (1898), recounting some of his African sojourns.
In 1900, Freeman obtained work as an assistant to Dr. John James Pitcairn (1860-1936) at Holloway Prison. Although he wasn’t there for very long, the association between the two men was enough to turn Freeman’s attention toward writing mysteries. Over the next few years, they co-wrote several under the pseudonym Clifford Ashdown, including The Adventures of Romney Pringle (1902), The Further Adventures of Romney Pringle (1903), From a Surgeon’s Diary (1904-1905), and The Queen’s Treasure (written around 1905-1906, and published posthumously in 1975.) The specifics of the two men’s writing arrangement are unknown to the present day, although much research was carried out by Freeman scholar Percival Mason (“P.M.”) Stone, who was actually able to confirm Pitcairn’s involvement and influence. Following this association, which apparently helped to train Freeman to be a better writer and to focus on a recurring character, his luck changed, and he was able, within just a few years, to abandon the practice of medicine, which had never been successful, and become a professional author.
In approximately 1904, Freeman began developing a mystery novella based on a short job that he had held at the Western Ophthalmic Hospital. This effort, “31 New Inn”, was published in 1905, and it is the true first Dr. Thorndyke story. In it, we meet narrator Dr. Christopher Jervis, working as a locum tenens, moving from practice to practice in the same bleak existence that Freeman had experienced. Jervis becomes involved with a patient that may or may not be in danger. Unsure what to do, he recalls his former classmate, the brilliant Dr. John Thorndyke.
Curiously, this novella, (included in Volume II of the newly reissued collection The Complete Dr. Thorndyke), has numerous references to the events of the first Thorndyke novel, The Red Thumb Mark, which would not be published until 1907. Much of Freeman’s life is obscure and unknown, including his writing processes and milestones, but clearly, with so much already clearly defined in this novella about Thorndyke and Jervis, he had firmly established not only fixed aspects of their histories, but the plot of The Red Thumb Mark as well, several years before the book’s publication. One wonders why he chose to first publish “31 New Inn”, since it occurs chronologically a whole year after the events of The Red Thumb Mark.
Interestingly – at least to a chronologicist such as myself – the original novella of “31 New Inn” is specifically set in April 1900, as indicated internally. However, when it was later revised to become the third Thorndyke novel, The Mystery of 31 New Inn, (1912, and included in Volume I of The Complete Dr. Thorndyke), the narrative’s date is changed to 1902 – which fits, since the events definitely occur after The Red Thumb Mark, which takes place in March and April 1901.
Like Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe, who seemed to have sprung fully formed from his creator’s brow, Thorndyke and his world are well-defined and immediately real. Although certain characters are added to the circle through the years, the basic layout – with Thorndyke, Jervis, and Polton (the man-of-all-work crinkly-smiled assistant) are always at 5A, ready to spring into action when Jervis – or one of the other varied narrators who show up throughout the series – arrive with a curious problem.
Freeman had found his voice with the Thorndyke books and short stories, and he was able to make use of his lifelong interest in medicine and natural science – often conducting extensive experiments to work out exactly how the solutions in his stories could be discovered. And in Thorndyke’s early days, Freeman was able to turn the literary form inside out with the creation of the “Inverted Mystery Story”, wherein the criminal is known from the beginning – the motive is explained, the planning and execution of the crime are observed, and the miscreant is left to believe that all is well and that he’ll never be caught. And then, in the second part of the story, Thorndyke enters to inexorably follow the trail that is completely invisible to everyone else, scraping away, layer by layer and point by point, until the truth is inevitably revealed.
As Freeman explained:
Some years ago I devised, as an experiment, an inverted detective story in two parts. The first part was a minute and detailed description of a crime, setting forth the antecedents, motives, and all attendant circumstances. The reader had seen the crime committed, knew all about the criminal, and was in possession of all the facts. It would have seemed that there was nothing left to tell. But I calculated that the reader would be so occupied with the crime that he would overlook the evidence. And so it turned out. The second part, which described the investigation of the crime, had to most readers the effect of new matter.
This format went on to be used by a great many authors through the years. For example several of the Lord Peter Wimsey narratives come close to being this type of story, and television’s Columbo used this type of story-telling as its basis.
While these volumes are an attempt to reintroduce the modern reader to Thorndyke, and are a celebration of him and his world, it must be discussed at some point that Freeman held views that are unacceptable. Unlike Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who spent his last decades championing spiritualism but never allowed it to creep into the Sherlock Holmes stories, Freeman sometimes did let his own prejudices make their way into the Thorndyke tales. In his book Social Decay and Regeneration (1921), he expressed his rather nationalistic view that England had become an “homogenized, restless, unionized working class”. Worse, he inexcusably and detestably supported the eugenics movement, arguing that people with “undesirable” traits should not be allowed to reproduce by means such as “segregation, marriage restriction, and sterilization”. He referred to immigrants as “Sub-Man”, and argued that society needed to be protected from "degenerates of the destructive type.”
Some have attempted to excuse his beliefs as being a product of his times. For instance, it has been written that he had a distrust of Jews because of the competition that his father, a tailor, had faced when Freeman was a boy. Later, he served in the Colonial Service in Africa during some of the worst years in terms of treatment of natives by the British, and as an older man, he existed in the Great Britain between the two wars when great upheavals disrupted much of what he had known and expected.
Sadly, there are occasional racial stereotypes and references in the Thorndyke books. As I explain in the Editor’s Caveat of the upcoming reissued editions, some of these stereotypes had to be unfortunately maintained within the story in order to accurately reflect the plot and the characters of those times. However, there are some words or phrases that were used in the original stories – vile racial epithets that have no business being repeated or perpetuated anywhere – that I have cheerfully and happily removed. (There weren’t many of them, but any are too many.)
These books are intended to bring Dr. Thorndyke and his adventures to a new generation – and not to be an untouchable and sacred literary artifact, with every nasty stain preserved and archived for the historical record. As I warn in the Editor's Caveat, if readers find that they want to experience the original versions as they were first written, with those hateful words included, then they would be advised to go and seek out the original books, because you won’t find that filth in these new editions. These versions celebrate Dr. Thorndyke and Dr. Jervis – who do not use the awful stereotyped language, I’m glad to say! – and as such, I felt no need whatsoever to include and perpetuate the objectionable and offensive material
From Thorndyke’s creation until 1914, Freeman wrote four novels and two volumes of short stories. Then, with the commencement of the First World War, he entered military service. In February 1915, at the age of fifty-two, he joined the Royal Army Medical Corps. Due to his health, which had never entirely recovered from his time in Africa, he spent the duration of the war involved with various aspects of the ambulance corps, having been promoted very early to the rank of Captain. He wrote nothing about Thorndyke during this period, but he did publish one book concerning the adventures of scoundrel, The Exploits of Danby Croker (1916).
R. Austin Freeman (1862-1943)
Following the war, he resumed his previous life, writing approximately one Thorndyke novel per year, as well as three more volumes of Thorndyke short stories and a number of other unrelated items, until his death on September 28th, 1943 – likely related to Parkinson’s Disease, which had plagued him in later years.
Upon learning the news, Chicago Tribune columnist Vincent Starrett wrote:
When all the bright young things have performed their appointed task of flatting the complexes of neurotic semi-literates, and have gone their way to oblivion, the best of the Thorndyke stories will live on – minor classics on the shelf that holds the good books the world.
Raymond Chandler wrote in his famous essay, which initially appeared in a couple of magazines and then was published in the book of the same name, The Simple Art of Murder (1950):
This man Austin Freeman is a wonderful performer. He has no equal in his genre, and he is also a much better writer than you might think, if you were superficially inclined, because in spite of the immense leisure of his writing, he accomplishes an even suspense which is quite unexpected . . . There is even a gaslight charm about his Victorian love affairs, and those wonderful walks across London.
In the introduction to Great Stories of Detection, Mystery, and Horror (1928), Dorothy L. Sayers, Chronicler of Lord Peter Wimsey, stated:
Thorndyke will cheerfully show you all the facts. You will be none the wiser . . . .
Discovering Dr. Thorndyke
I first encountered Dr. Thorndyke in a rather backwards way – in passing only – and it took several decades to correct that mistake. In approximately 1980, my dad gave me Otto Penzler’s The Private Lives of Private Eyes, Spies, Crime Fighters, and Other Good Guys (1977). This wonderful oversized book has biographies of twenty-five well-known heroes, along with lists of the original books featuring each one.
My dad bought it for me because it had a chapter about Sherlock Holmes. There were a few others in there that I recognized or had already read about– Ellery Queen and Perry Mason – and soon I would become fanatical about a few more – Nero Wolfe and Hercule Poirot. Over the next few years I would also find the chapters on James Bond and Lew Archer indispensable, and later than that I would come to appreciate the entries about Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade, Miss Marple, Philo Vance, and Lord Peter Wimsey. But there were a few that, to this day, I’ve never bothered to read – such as Modesty Blaise or Mr. Moto – and a few others that I skimmed but otherwise ignored. And one of these was the biography of Dr. Thorndyke.
That fact was easily understandable, as throughout the entire time that I was growing up in eastern Tennessee – and in the years since as well – I’ve never come across a Thorndyke book for sale here in the wild, either in a new bookstore or in a used one. If I’d found one, I might have bought and read it, liked it, and then sought out others. Instead, I was bound to discover Thorndyke by way of Sherlock Holmes.
I’ve been collecting traditional Sherlock Holmes pastiches since the same time that I discovered the Sherlockian Canon, when I was ten years old in 1975. Since that time, I’ve collected, read, and chronologicized literally thousands of them. It never gets old, and I’m constantly looking for more – and that means checking Amazon to see what new releases are on the horizon.
In 2012, someone – and I’ve never determined who – began releasing a variety of Holmes stories for Kindle under the author name Dr. John H. Watson. This wasn’t too unusual – there have been a number of pastiches that officially list Watson as the author, rather than putting the editor of Watson’s papers first. Of course, after determining that these latest entries weren’t going to be available as real books, I bought the e-versions, and then printed them on real paper. (I cannot stand e-books – ephemeral electronic blips that you lease instead of buy. I’ll only buy those titles if they aren’t going to be released as legitimate books – and in this case, it’s a good thing that I did, as each of these Kindle stories that I found and paid for were soon withdrawn.)
As I read these latest “Holmes” stories, I noticed that each had a definite style that captured the writing from the late 1800’s or early 1900’s. (No matter how modern pasticheurs try to achieve that, they never quite pull it off.) But in one of the first two or three titles that I read, I caught a couple of mistakes. In one story, Holmes and Watson leave 221 Baker Street and are immediately in the area around The Temple and Fleet Street, rather than in Marylebone, where Baker Street is properly located. On another occasion, the story’s policeman – who had been identified up to that point as Inspector Lestrade – was inexplicably named Superintendent Miller – but only in one instance. And in another place in one of the stories, Holmes’s address was stated to be 5A King’s Bench Walk.
It was then that some vague memory triggered in my head, and I realized why these stories had captured the style of the late Victorian and early Edwardian eras: It was because they had actually been written then. I recalled – from reading Otto Penzler’s book of biographies so long ago - that 5A King’s Bench Walk belonged to Dr. Thorndyke, and not Sherlock Holmes. Someone was taking the original Thorndyke stories, which I had never before read, and simply changing names: Dr. Thorndyke, Dr. Jervis, and Superintendent Miller became Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Watson, and Inspector Lestrade, respectively.
Between 2012 and 2014, the anonymous author continued to load new Kindle editions on Amazon of Thorndyke-converted to-Holmes stories, and I continued to buy them. As soon as I had one, I would read it, and then try to figure out the original Thorndyke story from which it was taken. When I’d done so, I’d post a review, identifying what this editor was doing, from where he or she was taking the story, and urging that person, whoever it was, give credit to R. Austin Freeman instead of listing the author as Dr. John H. Watson.
Soon after each of my reviews would appear, the story would be withdrawn. I don’t know if it was because the editor had made enough money from the initial sales, or if my reviews alerted him or her that they’re game had been uncovered. In any case, I still have the printed copies of each of these converted stories – possibly the only copies that are still in existence.
For the record, over that two year period, this editor produced sixteen converted tales – four of the original Thorndyke novels, and twelve short stories. One of the original short stories, “The Mandarin’s Pearl”, was converted twice, with slight variations – initially published as “The Dragon Pearl”, withdrawn, and later revised and reloaded as “The Oriental Pearl”:
• “The Bloodied Thumbprint” – Originally the first Thorndyke novel, The Red Thumb Mark;
• “The Eye of Ra” – Originally the second Thorndyke novel, The Eye of Osiris;
• “The Cat’s Eye Mystery” – Originally the sixth Thorndyke novel, The Cat’s Eye;
• “The Julius Dalton Mystery” – Originally the ninth Thorndyke novel, The D’Arblay Mystery;
• “The Green Jacket Mystery” – Originally “The Green Check Jacket”;
• “Mr. Crofton’s Disappearance” – Originally “The Mysterious Visitor”;
• “The Coded Lock” – Originally “The Puzzle Lock”;
• “The Duplicated Letter” – Originally “The Stalking Horse”;
• “The Bullion Robbery” – Originally “The Stolen Ingots”;
• “The Talking Corpse” – Originally “The Contents of a Mare’s Nest”;
• “The Blue Diamond Mystery” – Originally “The Fisher of Men”;
• “The Dragon Pearl” – Originally “The Mandarin’s Pearl”. (This story was also reworked and published again as a Holmes story under the title “The Oriental Pearl”);
• “The Ingenious Murder” – Originally “The Aluminium Dagger”;
• “The Bloodhound Superstition” – Originally “The Singing Bone”; and
• “The Magic Box” – Originally “The Magic Casket”.
For quite a while, I was happy to have these as Holmes stories, and I even considered converting the rest of the Thorndyke adventures into additions to the extended Holmes Canon as well. (For at that time I cared nothing for Dr. Thorndyke.) It was partly with these converted stories in mind that I was motivated to go ahead and publish Sherlock Holmes in Montague Street (2014, 2016), which did the same thing to the Martin Hewitt stories, making them early adventures of Holmes before he met Watson and moved to Baker Street. I had long before decided to my own satisfaction that Martin Hewitt was a young Sherlock Holmes, with his identity changed through the preparations of a different literary agent than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
The taking of old public-domain stories featuring other detectives as the main protagonists and switching them so that Holmes is the main character has also been done by Alan Lance Andersen for his collection The Affairs of Sherlock Holmes (2015, 2016), wherein various non-series Sax Rohmer stories from nearly a hundred years ago were reworked as Holmes tales. Other non-Holmes authors have sometimes done the same thing. Raymond Chandler revised some of his early short stories so that the original characters’ names were changed to Philip Marlowe. Ross MacDonald – (Kenneth Millar) also rewrote his old stories as well, making them into Lew Archer cases instead. More recently, the British ITV series Marple has taken non-Miss Marple Agatha Christie stories and converted them into episodes featuring that character.
So I had no problems with this type of change – and still don’t. In fact, in my foreword to Sherlock Holmes of Montague Street, I wrote that I would rather have these converted Thorndyke stories as Holmes adventures, because I would rather read about Holmes than Thorndyke. But gradually my mind began to change, and I became more curious about Thorndyke, as presented in the proper fashion.
In 2013, I was able to go to London, as well as other places in England and Scotland, on the first (of three so far) Holmes Pilgrimages. For the most part, if a location wasn’t related to Holmes, I didn’t visit it. There were a few exceptions – I did intentionally visit Solar Pons’s house at 7B Praed Street, Hercule Poirot’s two residences, James Bond’s flat in Chelsea – but everything else was pretty much pure Holmes.
One day, during my Holmesian rambles, I was making my way east down Fleet Street, and I visited both of the possible locations of “Pope’s Court” (as featured in “The Red-Headed League”), Poppin’s Court and Mitre Court. (The latter is also one of the locations where Denis Nayland Smith and Dr. Petrie had quarters in some of the Fu Manchu books.) I decided that Mitre Court was certainly the original of “Pope’s Court”, and I passed through it to find myself unexpectedly in The Temple.
That’s the amazing thing about a Holmes Pilgrimage to London – one travels to a site and finds two more very close by. I had planned to visit The Temple, but hadn’t realized that I was so close. And now here I was – and more interesting was the fact that I was walking along King’s Bench Walk, which runs downhill from the Miter Court passage. I recalled that Thorndyke had lived at 5A, so I made my way there – but without too much awe on that day, because I hadn’t actually read any Thorndyke adventures yet – just some converted Holmes stories.
5A King's Bench Walk . . . .
After I returned home, the thought of that side-trip to Thorndyke’s front door stuck in my mind, and I sought out and read the first novel in the series, The Red Thumb Mark. I was so impressed that I kept going, and discovered a wonderful series of books and stories – fascinating characters and mysteries, and very evocative descriptions of both the London and the countryside of those times.
When I returned on my second Holmes Pilgrimage in 2015, I took the second Thorndyke book with me, re-reading it while there – while also reading Holmes stories too, of course! This one, The Eye of Osiris, has a great deal of London atmosphere, and I spent part of one late afternoon tracking down locations in this book – or what’s now left of them – in the area around Fetter Lane to the north of Thorndyke’s home in The Temple. It was truly unforgettable.
And of course I made an intentional stop at Kings Bench Walk on that 2015 trip, and again on Holmes Pilgrimage No. 3 in 2016. By that point I was a Thorndyke fan, and I took the trouble to write to the current occupiers of 5A before I traveled to see if I could step inside and perhaps spend a moment in Thorndyke’s old quarters. Sadly, they did not respond – either because it was simply beneath them to do so, or possibly because they get too many people like me who want to make a literary pilgrimage to what is a functioning and thriving business location.
While making photographs at Thorndyke’s old doorway, I had several chances to go inside when someone else would enter or leave – My ever-present deerstalker and I could have simply been bold enough to slip in and then talk my way onward. It worked at other places on my Holmes Pilgrimages – the laboratory at Barts where Holmes and Watson met, for instance, and the site of the (former?) Diogenes Club at No. 78 Pall Mall, where they acted just oddly enough to make me think that the club is still there. But for some reason, barging into Thorndyke’s old chambers without proper permission didn’t feel quite right. But if or when I make Holmes Pilgrimage No. 4, I’ll definitely make an even greater effort to see the doctor’s former rooms.
Me and my deerstalker at 5A King’s Bench Walk - September 2016
The Return of Dr. Thorndyke . . . .
For too long, Dr. Thorndyke has been forgotten - a famed detective of yesteryear occasionally referenced in passing, or known to just a few devoted fans. It's time that he be acknowledged by a new generation. I hope that the reissued editions of the Dr. Thorndyke books will provide pleasure to those discovering him for the first time, and to others who have known him for a long time. As always, I approach these matters from a Sherlockian perspective, so of course these stories, to me, are a peripheral extension of Holmes’s world, and as such they are just more tiny threads woven into the ongoing Great Holmes Tapestry. However, they are wonderful on their own, and however one reads them, I wish great joy upon the journey.