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Literature / Dr. Thorndyke

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Dr. John Thorndyke is the protagonist of a series of detective stories written by R. Austin Freeman and originally published between 1907 and 1942.

Trained as both a physician and a lawyer, Dr. Thorndyke is a prototypical forensic scientist, focusing on physical evidence rather than personalities and motivations when solving a mystery. He refers to this combined practice as 'medico-legal jurisprudence'.

Freeman stated in articles that his intention in writing Thorndyke was to subvert what he felt were overused and clichéd tropes in other stories inspired by Sherlock Holmes. Rather than a Defective Detective who suffers from Good Is Not Nice and is Surrounded by Idiots, he wrote Thorndyke as a brilliant but humble man whose only vice (according to himself) is for Trichinopoly cheroots (a particularly disgusting variety of cigar) and who generally has great respect for the police. Even when Inspector Lestrade type characters do appear, Thorndyke is always polite to them (while winking at his sidekick Jervis and the reader). Freeman was also keen to ground his stories in scientific accuracy (as it stood at the time) and, for example, the short story collection John Thorndyke's Cases includes examples of how Freeman proved the evidence used in the stories was realistic, such as photographs of hair follicles under the microscope.


Many of the stories use the Reverse Whodunnit form, in which the audience is first shown the murderer planning and committing the crime and the suspense comes from the question of how Dr. Thorndyke will catch them out. Freeman is credited as the inventor of this form by many, and regardless was certainly one of the earliest authors known to have used it.

Adaptations of the Thorndyke stories are few and far between. A TV adaptation from 1964 is entirely lost except the pilot. Two stories, A Message from the Deep Sea and The Moabite Cypher, were adapted for the 1970s ITV series "The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes", with Thorndyke played by John Neville and Barrie Ingham respectively. More recently (2011) there have been radio adaptations on The BBC.


Dr. Thorndyke works with their own pages

This series provides examples of:

  • Abnormal Ammo: In "The Aluminium Dagger", the specially-made titular weapon was shot out of a Chassepot rifle to create one of the most far-fetched locked-room murder mysteries yet.
  • The Ace: Thorndyke, recognised in-story as the foremost authority on medical jurisprudence. Some of the later book covers even dub him "The Ace of Detectives".
  • Aluminum Christmas Trees: In Mr. Pottermack's Oversight, a character is able to obtain human remains for a substitution by buying an Egyptian mummy at auction with no paper trail, which was apparently perfectly possible in the 1930s.
  • Always Murder: There are a few Thorndyke stories that do not feature murder, but they are rare. Freeman noted in his article "The Art of the Detective Story" that murder is so popular a choice because it helps justify a villain desperate to cover his tracks given the consequences if he is caught.
  • Asshole Victim: James Lewson, in Mr. Pottermack's Oversight, is guilty of such infamies that Dr. Thorndyke is driven to remark that "hanging would be a great deal too good for him", and in the end he lets Lewson's killer off.
  • Author Appeal: A number of recurring elements such as West Africa, Egyptology, sculpture and pottery, and an Asshole Victim being a blackmailer to allow for a sympathetic villain (in Thorndyke's eyes).
  • Author Filibuster: All characters written by Freeman, whether hero or villain, will periodically complain about the rotten state of (then-)modern architecture in London and how the heritage of fine seventeenth century houses is vanishing.
  • Author Vocabulary Calendar: Freeman liked to use the word 'singular' (rather than unusual or unique), particularly in Thorndyke's voice.
  • Blackmail Backfire: Type 3 (the blackmailing victim murders the blackmailer) often happens in the stories, not least because Thorndyke sometimes lets the murderer get away with it (or at least views his actions with sympathy and gives him a sporting chance).
  • Can't Get in Trouble for Nuthin': At one point in Mr. Pottermack's Oversight there is a comedic sequence in which the Sympathetic Murderer tries to get rid of his victim's wallet by deliberately taking it places that are notorious for pickpockets, only to find that when he wants his pocket picked nobody seems interested.
  • Character Development: In the first Thorndyke story, The Red Thumb-mark, Christopher Jervis is a straightforward Dr Watson clone; later on he develops more of a unique sardonic character, often taking amusement at the astonishment of new characters to Thorndyke's skills (many of whom replace him as The Watson in that story).
  • Contrived Coincidence: A frequently Discussed Trope, with Thorndyke opining that people are prone to considering coincidences more unlikely than they actually are, and that one should not necessarily be surprised by them cropping up in an investigation.
  • A Day in the Limelight: Mr. Polton Explains is one for Polton. The character of Robin Anstey, a lawyer whose usual only function in the story is because Thorndyke can't simultaneously be acting for the defence and be in the witness box, also gets to take on the Watson role in The Cat's-eye a few short stories.
  • Dead Person Impersonation: The plot twist of Felo de Se.
  • Disguised in Drag: Plays a part in The Mystery of Angelina Frood and The Jacob Street Mystery.
  • Disposing of a Body: In The Stoneware Monkey, the victim's body is incinerated in a potter's kiln.
  • Doesn't Like Guns: Thorndyke dislikes them, though he has a collection of firearms he will use occasionally when confronting a particularly deadly foe, as in The D'Arblay Mystery:
    "I hate fire-arms!" [Thorndyke] exclaimed as he viewed the collection distastefully. "They are dangerous things, and when it comes to business they are scurvy weapons. Any poltroon can pull a trigger. But we must put ourselves on equal terms with our opponent, who is certain to be provided."
  • The Dreaded: Thorndyke rapidly becomes this to criminals, and in many later stories much of the plot revolves around ensuring that the criminals don't find out that Thorndyke is on the case until they can be trapped, or else they would just flee the country.
  • During the War: In the Thorndyke books, 'the war' is always World War One. It is rarely referred to as an ongoing event but frequently in retrospect; Thorndyke even mentions the Zeppelin raids on London in 1915 in the short story Gleanings From The Wreckage.
  • Early Installment Weirdness:
    • The Red Thumb-mark features a more late Victorian romantic storytelling style (in part due to the subplot of Jervis' nascent romance) which some might consider Glurge.
    • In one early story Polton's first name is given as Francis rather than the later Nathaniel.
    • There are a few action scenes early on featuring Thorndyke and Jervis clashing directly with villains, which feel out of character for most of the series.
  • The Edwardian Era: The setting of the earliest stories, and though theoretically the later ones are set in the 1930s, they still tend to feel as though they have more in common with this time than the Genteel Interbellum Setting.
  • Fair Play Whodunit: Freeman regarded this as the only correct form of detective story. Of course, a Running Gag is that Thorndyke will protest to Jervis that he has given him (and the reader) all the facts and he should be able to come to the same conclusion Thorndyke has - apparently innocent of his own brilliance as an investigator.
  • Famed in Story: Realistically, after his first few triumphs, Thorndyke's name is respected and he no longer has to deal with overly sceptical counsels and juries.
  • Foreshadowing: In Helen Vardon's Confession, a sub-plot involves one of Helen's friends in Miss Polton's house of female craftsmen, Winifred 'Lilith' Blake, who then goes on to be the main female character in the next full-length novel, The Cat's-eye, where she becomes Robin Anstey's love interest and eventual wife.
  • Friend on the Force: Superintendant Miller and, to a lesser extent, Inspector Badger.
  • Frame-Up: Part of the backstory of Mr. Pottermack's Oversight is an incident where a bank clerk embezzled his employer and then framed another clerk.
  • Gadgeteer Genius: Nathaniel Polton, Thorndyke's assistant.
  • Genre Savvy: Jervis turns into this after a few books, noting in his narrative that while he can't see the purpose of Thorndyke's latest inexplicable fascination with apparently irrelevant evidence, he knows from past experience that it will inevitably turn out to be crucial.
  • The Ghost: Jervis' wife Juliet, who he meets in the first story The Red Thumb-mark and is mentioned to be courting in The Mystery of 31 New Inn, yet is barely mentioned in any other story except for brief appearances in When Rogues Fall Out and the short stories "A Wastrel's Romance" and "The Old Lag". Notably Jervis is often described as living in Thorndyke's chambers as though he was still a bachelor. This is eventually explained in Jervis' narration in When Rogues Fall Out:
    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.
  • Gilligan Cut: In The Shadow of the Wolf, it cuts from the villain Varney gloating that he has used his engraving skills (being an expert forger) to fake a letter from the man he has killed, to Thorndyke viewing the letter and immediately working out it is a fake from studying the forged franking mark on the stamp. Of course, it helped that Thorndyke had already worked out that the man in question was probably dead before being presented with the letter.
  • Glad You Thought of It: Thorndyke will ascribe plans he had already made to being ideas of Jervis or the police. This is partly sometimes as a joke or cover, but Thorndyke is also often happy to let the police take credit for his discoveries.
  • Gone Swimming, Clothes Stolen: Used dramatically in Mr. Pottermack's Oversight. An escaped convict steals a set of clothes he finds on the beach, leaving his own prison uniform behind, after noticing that they've been there some time and concluding that their owner won't be back for them. The dead body of the clothes' owner is washed ashore some time later, ravaged beyond recognition, and taken to be that of the convict.
  • Great Big Library of Everything: Though it's not that physically large, Thorndyke has himself compiled a library of books containing information on past criminal cases and a bewilderingly comprehensive variety of potential evidence. He once demonstrated that a body had been moved rather than the victim killed in situ purely from the variety of pond weed found on the corpse.
  • Insistent Terminology: Thorndyke, Polton and any police inspectors using skeleton keys are always keen to point out that they're not skeleton keys, they're (a choice euphemism that means the same thing) keys.
  • Inspector Lestrade: Inspector Badger fits the trope best. Superintendant Miller has a tendency to latch on to the first suspect he can find and try to push them into a confession, but is never dismissive of Thorndyke's abilities to see beyond the obvious. Later books also feature Inspector Blandy, who is clever and insightful but ends up with Thorndyke as his Always Someone Better.
  • Insurance Fraud: Mostly in the short stories, Thorndyke and Jervis are sometimes employed by Mr Stalker of the Griffin Life Assurance Office to look into suspicious cases of people who have taken out life insurance policies and then met untimely ends. Of course Stalker is usually keen for them to discover it was suicide (which would invalidate the policy) but the actual outcome Thorndyke finds is often even more unexpected.
  • I Owe You My Life: Polton regards Thorndyke as having saved his life when he was destitute and hero-worships him as a result, while Thorndyke would rather treat him as a friend and equal.
  • Last-Name Basis: Thorndyke and Jervis call one another by their surnames, and we only learn what Polton's first name is in Mr. Polton Explains.
  • Let Off by the Detective: In Mr. Pottermack's Oversight, Dr. Thorndyke is the only person who realizes that Mr. Pottermack has anything to do with the death of James Lewson (due to noticing the one detail Mr. Pottermack overlooked), and after establishing the true circumstances he chooses to keep his discoveries to himself.
  • Line-of-Sight Name: Mr Pottermack in Mr. Pottermack's Oversight adapted an alias from the name of the ship that brought him to America, the SS Potomac.
  • Market-Based Title: Some of the novels were published under other titles in the United States.
  • Master of Unlocking: Polton, who has developed a device for the purpose euphemistically referred to as "the smoker's companion".
  • Meaningful Name: Mr Snuper the snooper, as lampshaded by Jervis.
  • The Nondescript: Mr Ethelbert Snuper, a professional spy and tail employed by Thorndyke in several stories, including Felo de Se. Dr Jervis is completely unable to recognise him every time they meet, despite having met him before.
  • Nostalgia Filter: Discussed Trope. "Memory is like a sundial - it only measures the sunlit hours".
  • Oops! I Forgot I Was Married: A fair way into Mr. Pottermack's Oversight, Mr. Pottermack proposes to the woman he loves, and she reveals that she already has a husband, whom she walked out on before she met Mr. Pottermack but to whom she is officially still married.
  • The Perfect Crime: In Mr. Pottermack's Oversight, Mr. Pottermack covers up the death of James Lewson with considerable ingenuity, the more impressive considering his plan is invented on the spur of the moment and not premeditated. The one flaw is the titular oversight, which nobody but Dr. Thorndyke spots and even he might have missed on any other day. Pottermack covers his tracks so well that when he subsequently realizes that he can't bring his aims to fruition without Lewson being officially declared dead, he has to fake the death of the already dead man in order to have enough evidence for the authorities to act on.
  • Perspective Flip: The stories told from Jervis' perspective (or a similar Watson character) can make it seem as though Thorndyke works everything out almost immediately and simply refuses to discuss it until he has proof. However, The Shadow of the Wolf, a Reverse Whodunnit told alternatingly from Thorndyke's perspective and the murderer's (albeit in the third person) gives insight into his thoughts and shows that he is actually debating between multiple possible theories until the true one becomes apparent.
  • Reality Ensues: In stereotypical detective stories, the bad guy of the week is usually either caught, get killed trying to evade justice, or by their criminal associates. But it's not impossible for Thorndyke's target in the shorts to simply vanish.
  • Revealing Cover-Up: A number of times, Thorndyke states that many otherwise competent criminals suffering from Complexity Addiction fall victim to this trope. He notes that some of them pull off a perfect crime that not even he would be able to trace or prove, but then expose themselves due to the compulsion to cover their non-existent tracks.
  • Reverse Whodunnit: Freeman is credited with inventing the Reverse Whodunit as a trope. Four of the five stories in his 1912 collection The Singing Bone are structured in two parts, with the first part being the criminal committing the deed and the second part being Dr. Thorndyke solving the crime. Freeman would do this again with the two stories that were paired together in 1918's The Great Portrait Mystery. (The trope was popularized some six decades later by Lt. Columbo.)
  • Sarcasm-Blind: While Thorndyke isn't actually like this, he often comes across as it due to his habit of seemingly taking sarcastic suggestions from Jervis or the police (which he had already planned to do anyway) such as analysing all the dust in a flat in Felo de Se.
  • Science Hero: Thorndyke, especially in the full novels where he is usually acting out of compassion for a victim and out of his own pocket rather than being employed by others to solve a case.
  • Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness: Daniel Penrose in The Penrose Mystery speaks entirely in obtuse allonyms. For example, it's suggested that he would call John Thorndyke "Giovanni Brambleditch".
  • Shout-Out: Many to seventeenth-century English literature, William Shakespeare and Samuel Pepys.
  • Springtime for Hitler: In The Red Thumb-mark Thorndyke attempts to critique the Sherlock Scan trope by observing a man from his window, noting his gait implies his job requires him to stand for long periods, and therefore concluding he is a stationmaster - before pointing out that there might be many other reasons for him to have stood for long periods. However, Polton turns out to actually know the man in question and promptly reports that he is a stationmaster.
    Thorndyke: You will also observe that a fortunate guess often brings more credit than a piece of sound reasoning with a less striking result.
    Jervis: Yes, that is unfortunately the case, and it is certainly true in the present instance. Your reputation, as far as Polton is concerned, is now firmly established even if it was not before. In his eyes you are a wizard from whom nothing is hidden.
  • That's What I Would Do: In his early career Thorndyke considered how he would pull off various crimes and wrote the plans down; later on he finds that many a clever criminal has had the same idea, allowing him to predict what they will do next.
  • Totally Radical: Jervis is annoyed by the contemporary version of this in A Wastrel's Romance when he dances with a Flapper to whom "everything is either 'ripping' or 'rotten'."
  • True Art Is Incomprehensible: In-Universe, this is exploited by two untalented artists in The Stoneware Monkey to sell dreadful and crude work to modern art afficionados.
  • The Uriah Gambit: Mentioned by name in The Shadow of the Wolf, though it wasn't the murderer's primary motive for killing his victim (as Thorndyke speculates it might be at one point).
  • Vague Age: Thorndyke's assistant Nathaniel Polton's description makes him sound older than Thorndyke, but in his Belated Backstory in Mr. Polton Explains, he is described as being younger than Thorndyke when they first met.
  • The Watson: Dr Christopher Jervis fills the role in many stories, but in others it is taken by a book-specific protagonist narrator (sometimes with Jervis appearing as a secondary character). It doesn't help that Thorndyke absolutely refuses to give his friend a single hint, ever, much to the latter's chagrin. At best, all he and the audience can do is make guesses based on what evidence Thorndyke has collected.
  • Wham Episode: When Rogues Fall Out, which features the return of the villain from the first book The Red Thumb-mark and the murder of recurring Inspector Lestrade character Inspector Badger.
  • Worthy Opponent:
    • Mr Pottermack in Mr. Pottermack's Oversight, who uses a command of forensic detail equal to Thorndyke's in order to lay a false trail. Only one tiny mistake—the Oversight of the title—allows Thorndyke to work out the truth.
    • In The Red Thumb-mark Thorndyke is so busy admiring the clever way the villain tried to murder him that Jervis has to remind him he should be angry about it.


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