The day a man reads his last new Sherlock Holmes mystery is a sad one. The stories decline in quality, but to the very last retain some echo of what made the early tales classics of the detective genre.
The best Holmes can be reread, but still a man likes to have something new to read during his free reading time. Finding Freeman Austin is Doyle fan-fiction from Doyle’s own time.
Freeman R. Austin is no Arthur Conan Doyle, but he does give you a bit of an Edwardian fix . . . even his stories written after the Edwardian era. His hero, Dr. Thorndyke, is very much like Holmes right up to having an everyone medico as a sidekick. Thorndyke is Holmes with a better eduction, but less flair.
Thorndyke is a medical investigator and the combination of law and science is interesting: CSI Edwardian England. Austin tested all the science in the books himself and some of the stories read as if this is true. If Doyle sometimes cheated on the science, he never bored the reader with unnecessary detail. Only the devoted historian of science could enjoy the detailed descriptions of crucial experiments that blog down the plots of some of the Thorndyke stories.
The judicious reader of the Thorndyke stories will learn to skim . . . a skill any reader of mine has learned acquired in self-defense.
Austin is, perhaps, best remembered for pioneering the “backwards” detective story where the reader knows the criminal and his methods from the start, but still has the fun of seeing Dr. Thorndyke work out the solution. The backwards plots of some of the mysteries are interesting, but less startling now than they must have seemed at the time. We defy literary convention so freely now that it is more shocking not to be shocking. Still the plots are clever and the atmosphere often “right,” so the stories are worth a go.
These are not works of philosophy, but the scientism in the books is amusing. As the Packers are the source of meaning to Wisconsin, so science is the source of meaning for Thorndyke.
Dr. Thorndyke is, if anything a greater materialist, than Mr. Holmes. Religious people are at best cuddly or old. If Christopher Hitchens thinks Christianity spoils everything, Smith acts as if it is incapable of doing anything. I prefer Hitchens’ view of us to Thorndykes’.
The weaker or excitable races, such as the Irish, Jews, the old, and women are likely to have faith. This belief is a good thing, because it allows the simple to find meaning in their lives. Not everyone can have the great brain of the powerful Dr. Thorndyke and live by English law and science, so such folk need faith in order to reinforce the Edwardian morals and social order that any sensible white man knows to be true as a result of his superior education.
The racism, prejudice against Jews, and assumptions about women are wearisome in stories written before and during World War I. Some sentences express prejudices ugly enough, given where the contemporary readers knows Europe is heading, that the bigotry ruins the story.
Doyle is no saint either, his spiritualism did not protect him from catching many of the diseases of his day. in fact, anybody who reads any old books will be brought to cultural differences directly. Edwardians had virtues we lack, but many vices that we also have lost. Sometimes the vices in a writer like Freeman outweigh any charm or virtue in the book.
After reading hundreds of pages of Thorndyke, it is simple to conclude the religion is the opiate of those unfortunate enough not to be educated white men. This makes an important apologetic point.
Sadly, one can find the same sort of things in Edwardian Christian novels. Christian, spiritualist, and secular: a whole culture swallowed bigotry wholesale. It had many causes and there is enough blame to share.
All but the most naive Christian knows that being right in general about religion does not keep us from often being wrong about some particular thing anyway. No Scripture is so clear and no Church tradition so long lasting that it cannot be misunderstood.
At one point in its history the religion of the Prince of Peace justified torture! Christianity is true, but our applications in any given era of that truth will be a muddle.
When a young adult reading science fiction, however, I experience the opposite prejudice. Some secularists, one thinks of Isaac Asimov, read as if secularism itself was proof against stupidity and moral bankruptcy.
Dr. Thorndyke stories show this to be false. There is no prejudice so stupid that the stories do not go along with it and no bigotry incapable of getting a “scientific” justification.
We can understand why Freeman wrote as he did, but he should not have.
Educated Edwardian culture was turning from Christianity and Freeman reflects this. Of course, Christians also helped form the good and the bad in this culture. As the vast majority of subjects to the Crown, we should have done better than we did.
Christianity is certainly no sure barrier against stupid or wicked ideas caught from the culture, but secularism isn’t either. Science has been and will be bent toward the ideological assumptions of people. There was no moral safety in “simply” being a Christian at the start of the twentieth century, because something is always corrupting the Christian ethic of love. However, by itself science, or materialism, also was no sure protection.
Christians could justify racism by twisting Scriptures and materialists by torturing the facts of science.
Christianity comes around, even if Christians do so slowly, because the facts of the moral universe and God do not change. The scientists come to their senses, because the cosmos remains as well.
All of us, Christians and secularists, are going to have to admit that we are likely seriously wrong about something. Oddly enough some of what we are seriously wrong about will be things that actually seem like common ground to us. Secularists will have caught irrational ideas from us and we will have picked up some from them. The mental diseases hardest to cure will be the ones we don’t recognize as diseases.
We call such things “common sense” or overuse descriptions such as “clearly” and “obviously” to refer to them.
Clearly, much of what common sense tells us to today will seem obviously wrong tomorrow. The only hope we have is to practice the charity we wish for toward our predecessors like Mr. Freeman with the wish that our descendants will do the same for us.
We must live constantly critical of our assumptions and listen to the “outsiders” to see if they have something to say. Usually they will be merely “weird,” but sometimes the weird of today are the people tomorrow will view as prophets. We must listen and make as few unexamined assumptions as possible.
Still we will get things wrong!
Have mercy dear great-grandson on our follies in 2010 and remember our good that allowed you to read these words!