R. Austin Freeman


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R. Austin Freeman (1862-1943), British physician and author of the Dr. John Thorndyke detective crime series including The Red Thumb Mark (1907).

Richard Austin Freeman was born on 11 April 1862 in Marylebone, London, England, the youngest of the five children of tailor Richard Freeman (1822/3–1890) and Ann Maria Dunn. Not much of his life is known before he entered medical school at Middlesex Hospital at the age of eighteen. He earned his MRCS in 1886. A year later he married Annie Elizabeth with whom he had two sons.

In the summer of 1887 Freeman was off to the Gold Coast Colony in Accra and was surgeon and navigator for an expedition to Ashanti and Bontuku in 1889. Travels and Life in Ashanti and Jaman was published in 1898. The conditions were treacherous and he was struck with blackwater fever that would affect him for years to come. Invalided and sent back home to London he turned his pursuits to writing, and he and his wife settled in Gravesend where he also practiced medicine.

The Adventures of Romney Pringle (1902), published under Freeman's pseudonym Clifford Ashdown, was a collaboration with Dr. John James Pitcairn (1860-1936). Barrister and Doctor, John Evelyn Thorndyke soon became the protagonist of over twenty of Freeman’s' own works, many highly lauded and best-selling, the first in the series being The Red Thumb Mark (1907). He infused his scientific methodological background into Thorndyke's character in forensically detecting clues and solving crimes, in this case ingeniously forged fingerprints. Pearson's Magazine published a number of Freeman's short stories, including the The Case of Oscar Brodski (1912), a classic example of an `inverted' detective story in which the criminal is introduced to the reader at the beginning.

The Mystery of 31 New Inn (1912) contains a fine example of Freeman's combination of dry wit and Thorndyke's speculative assessment of the situation at the start of Chapter III,

The attitude of the suspicious man tends to generate in others the kind of conduct that seems to justify his suspicions. In most of us there lurks a certain strain of mischief which trustfulness disarms but distrust encourages. The inexperienced kitten which approaches us confidingly with arched back and upright tail, soliciting caresses, generally receives the gentle treatment that it expects; whereas the worldly-wise tom-cat, who, in response to friendly advances, scampers away and grins at us suspiciously from the fancied security of an adjacent wall, impels us to accelerate his retreat with a well-directed clod. ..Now the proceedings of Mr. H. Weiss resembled those of the tom-cat aforesaid and invited an analogous reply.

Thorndyke's use of a track chart, which Freeman had devised whilst in Africa, is typical of the author's attention to realism and practicality, though his critics argued that his encyclopaedic knowledge was cumbersome. The experiments described in his stories had been tested by himself to ensure probability, though ultimately Freeman was mainly concerned with providing entertainment for his readers. During World War I Freeman served as a captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps, Maidstone, Kent. He became involved with the Eugenics Society after the war and wrote Social Decay and Regeneration in 1921. His views on society were grim, blaming the industrial revolution for its ills and suggesting that a return to the land in a utopic agricultural-based society was the solution. Richard Austin Freeman died at his home, Rosemount, 94 Windmill Street, Gravesend, Kent, on 28 September 1943.

Other works include;

Golden Pool (1905)
The Mystery of Angelina Frood (1924)
As a Thief in the Night (1928)
The Penrose Mystery (1936)
The Stoneware Monkey (1938)
Mr. Polton Explains (1940)

Biography written by C.D. Merriman for Jalic Inc. Copyright Jalic Inc 2006. All Rights Reserved.

The above biography is copyrighted. Do not republish it without permission.

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