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Literature / The Singing Bone

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The Singing Bone is a 1912 short story collection by R. Austin Freeman.

It is a collection of five short stories starring Freeman's creation, forensic detective Dr. Thorndyke. As always, Thorndyke (the character debuted in 1907 novel The Red Thumb Mark) uses his power of deductive reasoning and his expert knowledge of forensics to catch bad guys.

The short stories in this collection are remembered for originating the idea of the Reverse Whodunit, or, as Freeman described it, the "inverted detective story". Four of the five stories, all but the last, start out from the POV of a criminal committing a crime, then endeavoring to cover it up. In the second part, told from the perspective of Dr. Thorndyke's Watson Dr. Jervis, Thorndyke enters, examines the evidence, and unravels the coverup that the local cops were all too willing to believe. The five stories are:


  • "The Case of Oscar Brodski" — Silas Hickler, a thief and dealer in stolen diamonds, murders another diamond merchant and tries to make it look like the victim killed himself by lying on the railroad tracks.
  • "A Case of Premeditation" — Dobbs, a man who escaped from prison and has built himself a new identity as a businessman kills his blackmailer, Pratt, a prison guard who recognizes him.
  • "The Echo of a Mutiny" — a lighthouse keeper kills his new lighthouse partner, who as it happens was also his long-ago partner in a case of mutiny and murder at sea
  • "A Wastrel's Romance" — Bailey, a former officer, no longer a gentleman but instead a thief, falls victim to temptation and smothers a society lady in order to steal her jewels.
  • "The Old Lag" — Miller, a former convict, once imprisoned thanks to Dr. Thorndyke, goes back to Thorndyke and protests that he is being framed for another crime. The only story in the collection that does not use the Reverse Whodunit trope.


  • Always Murder: True of most of the Dr. Thorndyke novels and short stories, but played with in "A Wastrel's Romance". Bailey thinks he has killed Mrs. Crater, but she was only unconscious, and she revives.
  • Asshole Victim: Pratt the blackmailer in "A Case of Premeditation". Dobbs reflects that he basically has to kill Pratt because blackmailers can never be silenced. Thorndyke for his part says that "to kill a blackmailer—when you have no other defence against him—is hardly murder.
  • Blackmail Backfire: In "A Case of Premeditation" Pratt tries to blackmail Dobbs with knowledge of his criminal past. Instead of getting money he gets stabbed to death.
  • Chekhov's Gun: In "A Wastrel's Romance", the cloakroom attendant confuses Bailey's coat with that of another guest. The coat, naturally, provides Thorndyke with the evidence that allows him to trace down the location of Bailey's apartment.
  • Clue, Evidence, and a Smoking Gun: In "A Wastrel's Romance", Thorndyke deduces that the man with the coat must live in the neighborhood of Dockhead, after some painstaking analysis of the coat. He finds traces of rice starch, wheat starch, and spices, deduces that the man who owns the coat must live somewhere near factories that make all three, consults the Post Office Directory and discovers that Dockhead is the only neighborhood where all three are found together. Then they check out the tram ticket in the coat and discover a ticket from Tooley Street to Dockhead.
  • Continuity Nod: In "The Old Lag" Dr. Jervis sees a fingerprint book and remembers how that very fingerprint book led to him meeting his wife. That was in The Red Thumb Mark, which was the first Dr. Thorndyke novel.
  • Contrived Coincidence:
    • Who should show up out of nowhere at Silas Hickler's door, out of nowhere, on his way to catch a train? Oscar Brodski, a diamond merchant and former acquaintance of Silas. The knowledge that Brodski almost definitely has diamonds on his person spurs Silas to murder.
    • In "The Echo of a Mutiny" the man who arrives to join Jeffreys at the lighthouse is Amos Todd, his partner in mutiny and murder onboard a ship many years ago.
  • Driven to Suicide: "The Case of Oscar Brodski" ends with Silas Hickler jumping off of the boat that was bearing him back to England, and drowning himself.
  • Forensic Drama: Dr. Thorndyke carries around his own little kit that he uses to analyze hair and fiber and other microscopic evidence. In "The Case of Oscar Brodski" Thorndyke analyzes the fibers in Brodski's mouth, finds jute fibers, and determines that Brodski must have been choked to death with some sort of cloth from "an article of habitation", so he was probably murdered indoors. (It was a tablecloth.)
  • Foreshadowing: In "The Echo of a Mutiny", when Todd is taking the boat out to the lighthouse, the man loaning it to him urges him to hurry before the ebb tide comes, so he isn't swept out to sea. Later, after his fight with Rorke, Todd falls into the ocean, where he's swept out by the ebb tide and drowned.
  • Frame-Up:
    • "A Case of Premeditation" has Dobbs framing Ellis, a cop and old acquaintance of Pratt, for the murder. Thorndyke comments at the end that Dobbs must have known that the frame would never hold up, but the whole point was to give Dobbs a chance to get away. (Which he did, even though Thorndyke unravels the frame in short order.)
    • In "The Old Lag" it turns out that Miller was in fact framed, by a man who had rubber stamps made of Miller's fingerprints so he could deposit those prints at the scene. The real killer is a former prison guard who had access to fingerprint records.
  • Inspector Lestrade:
    • The unnamed inspector in "The Case of Oscar Brodski", who mocks Thorndyke for doing things like examining the contents of Brodski's mouth or the crumbs on Brodski's coat, only to be embarrassed when Thorndyke solves the mystery.
    • Inspector Fox in "A Case of Premeditation", who completely falls for the misdirection with the bloodhounds, and continues to insist that Ellis must be the murderer, even after Thorndyke finds bloody handprints in the tree.
  • Lighthouse Point: "The Echo of a Mutiny" is set on a lighthouse. Jeffreys, the keeper of the lighthouse, was a sailor who long ago mutinied and killed his captain. He is unpleasantly surprised to find out that his new partner at the lighthouse, a fellow named Brown, was his old partner in the mutiny.
  • Mathematician's Answer: In "The Old Lag", Superintendent Miller accuses Thorndyke of concealing the whereabouts of Belfield, a murder suspect. Thorndyke states "Belfield's address has not been communicated to me." This is true, but it's also true that at the same time Thorndyke says this to Miller, Belfield is hiding in the next room of Thorndyke's apartment.
  • Murder by Inaction: Sort of in "The Echo of a Mutiny". Rorke is described as watching and making no move while Todd drowns in the ocean, but this is after they've had a fight where Todd pulled a knife and Rorke shoved Todd off a cliff into the ocean in the first place.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: In "A Wastrel's Romance", Bailey is so overcome with horror after he smothered Mrs. Chater that he runs off, without even taking her jewels and rings, his motive for the crime. This is part of the reason why Mrs. Chater doesn't press charges after she finds out who the man that attacked her is.
  • Not Quite Dead: Bailey in "A Wastrel's Romance" smothers Mrs. Chater with the chloroform rag and thinks he's killed her. But she later regains consciousness after she's found in the bushes.
  • Ominous Fog: In "The Echo of a Mutiny" fog comes creeping around the lighthouse just as a boat approaches. The boat, and the arrival of Brown, lead to murder.
  • Reverse Whodunit: Four of the five stories in the collection. Ur-Example. (The Trope Codifier is probably Columbo). In his preface Freeman wrote that he included one more standard story, "The Old Lag", for the sake of comparison.
  • Riddle for the Ages: In-universe, though Thorndyke uncovers the murder in "The Echo of a Mutiny", he and the police never learn the reason for it - a refreshing contrast to how many of the Thorndyke stories portray him as (eventually) omniscient about the crime.
  • The Sociopath: The opening narration to "The Case of Oscar Brodski" muses that "some fortunate persons have no conscience at all; a negative gift that raises them above the mental vicissitudes of the common herd of humanity." The next paragraph introduces Silas Hickler, thief and dealer in stolen jewels, who is the murderer.
  • Switching P.O.V.: All of the Reverse Whodunit stories are divided into two parts, with the first part following the criminal committing the crime, and the second part following Thorndyke putting his skills to use.
  • They Have the Scent!: After Pratt happens to mention that his boss keeps a pack of bloodhounds, Dobbs uses this in his murder scheme. He stages a knife at the scene, one tainted with musk, and deliberately leaves a trail of musk to the police station. This leads the bloodhounds to the station and to Ellis, the man that Dobbs is framing.
  • Title Drop: At the end of "The Echo of a Mutiny", Jervis is admiring how Thorndyke got so much information out of the pipes found in the lighthouse. He compares Todd's pipe to German folk tale "The Singing Bone", in which a peasant found a bone and made it into a pipe, only for the bone to sing about how the man it belonged to was murdered.
  • Tranquil Fury: When Jeffreys/Rorke has his hands wrapped around Brown/Todd's throat, he says "You murderous little devil!" with what the narration describes as "an ominously quiet voice."
  • The Watson: Dr. Jervis is a bog-standard Watson here, narrating Thorndyke's exploits and expressing wonderment at his detecting skills; he gets more nuance in some of Freeman's longer works.