Dr. Thorndyke: The original forensic investigator

Chris Chan

Television networks know that hit shows are few and far between. That’s why most mega-hit shows have spawned numerous spin-offs and knock-offs. CBS’s runaway smash C.S.I.: Crime Scene Investigation, about Las Vegas’s top-notch forensic department and how they solve various crimes, has already spawned the spin-off C.S.I.: Miami. Both shows do so well in the ratings that a third entry in the franchise is expected, possibly as early as next season.

But before CBS launches production of C.S.I.: Duluth, C.S.I.: Kalamazoo, or even C.S.I.: Appleton, let me suggest a slightly more inventive and ambitious alternative: C.S.I.: London 1910, based on the Doctor Thorndyke mysteries by R. Austin Freeman.

Freeman wrote during the first decades of the 20th century, when science was making unprecedented discoveries, the mystery genre was in its infancy, and the London criminal courts were jam-packed.

Freeman’s detective is Dr. Thorndyke, a brilliant scientist who is both a doctor and a lawyer. Thorndyke not only uses the scientific method to catch criminals, but he also defends the wrongly accused in court.

Unlike many classic detectives like Sherlock Holmes or Lord Peter Wimsey, Thorndyke is not a particularly endearing character. He is all work and practically humorless. And unlike sleuths like Hercule Poirot and Father Brown, who pioneered the use of psychology as a means of solving cases, Thorndyke sticks entirely to forensic investigation.

You don’t read Thorndyke mysteries for the likable protagonists or the amusing insights into human nature. You read them to discover how science was used as a detecting tool in England at the turn of the century.

The near-complete Thorndyke series just found its way back into print last year, easily available through Internet distributors, although the books are rarely found in bookstores. They are ideal for anyone who is interested the history of science, or just for anyone who loves a good mystery.

The plots generally revolve around some fantastic and seemingly unsolvable crime, and it is Thorndyke’s ingenious use of the scientific method that solves the case.

But remember: these crimes take place just as the Victorian era was ending. Thorndyke doesn’t have DNA testing or computer databases or advanced technology. All he has is a simple laboratory, ordinary household tools, and his razor-sharp mind.

The modern mind night boggle at the prospect of proving a crime scene was tampered with by using only a set of fire-irons and a billows, or doing ballistics work with substances found in any kitchen, but those were the tools at Thorndyke’s disposal.

Thorndyke’s ingenuity makes it seem like today’s crime scene investigators have it easy.

Scientific advances were just finding their way into police work. Fingerprints were just beginning to be used as evidence, but they were not infallible.

The Red Thumb Mark, arguably Freeman’s most influential book, illuminated a number of flaws in the practice of this budding science. The Red Thumb Mark shows how easy it is for fingerprints to be forged by someone with a little rudimentary photographic skill and some rubber and ink. Indeed, prints can be so well faked that even the best experts of the early 20th century wouldn’t know that they were imposters.

Freeman also illustrates the flaws and corruptions in the criminal justice system. Unlike today, professional doctors were not always called in to investigate a mysterious death. A coroner was not necessarily a medical practitioner, but was sometimes just a nobleman or minor public official, often with deficient mental prowess.

In one story, a self-important bureaucrat takes a quick glance at a charred skeleton, pronounces it accidental death by immolation, and brags about saving the public money by not wasting funds on a full medical examination. Luckily Dr. Thorndyke is there at the inquest, and his trained eye is able to deduce that the cadaver was dead long before it was burned. But had he not been there, a criminal would have gone free.

Alas, the inadequacies in the early 20th century British justice system were not always caught in time in real life. In one tragic case that took place around the same time as the Thorndyke mysteries, a domestic servant was accused of attempting to kill her employers with arsenic. An officer looked at some discolored dumplings and some stained knives without performing any chemical tests and swore that the blemishes were due to arsenic. A mule-headed judge sentenced the unfortunate maid to death.

A local doctor performed some medical experiments and proved conclusively that arsenic does not discolor dumplings or stain knives. Further investigations showed that there were numerous other avenues by which the poison could have been administered, and that many other people could have introduced the arsenic.

The doctor presented this exculpatory evidence to the victims, who immediately came with him to get the judge to clear the prisoner’s name.

Amazingly, the judge refused to consider the doctor’s findings, saying that there had never been a clear case of guilt, that the doctor was only making this evidence up out of lecherous designs towards the accused, and that it was far better a maid be convicted and condemned than any higher-born person even suspected.

Thanks to the judge’s bigotry, the poor woman, who was almost certainly innocent, as recent investigations have determined, was hanged at her parents’ expense.

This story just goes to show the necessity of an honest justice system coupled with solid scientific investigation. Devotees of police procedurals and courtroom dramas will enjoy the Thorndyke mysteries. Hopefully CBS will find out about Freeman’s novels as well.