There is nothing new about the importance of forensic pathology in detective fiction, and I was reminded of this when watching the opening episode of The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes, a very enjoyable collection on DVD of the first series of this excellent TV show from the 1970s. The mystery in question was ‘A Message from the Deep Sea’, and the author of the original tale on which the episode was based was R. Austin Freeman.
Freeman’s detective was Dr John Thorndyke, and if you haven’t come across him, you have missed a giant of the Golden Age of detective fiction. Thorndyke specialised in what he liked to call ‘medical jurisprudence’, and – often assisted by his friend Jervis, he used his scientific expertise to unravel countless puzzles that defeated the hapless chaps from Scotland Yard and sundry rural forces.
In this episode, Dr Thorndyke was played by John Neville – a handsome actor, whose casting provides a reminder that Thorndyke was supposed to be a handsome man, though the emphasis was always on his detective skills, his personal life never intruding as it would be in the hands of a modern writer. The puzzle involved the throat-cutting of a young woman, and the police suspicion of a classic ‘obvious suspect’. In an inquest scene, Thorndyke establishes that the evidence proves the guilt of another – a chap who foolishly makes a run for it, only to be captured by the burly cops Thorndyke has arranged to be stationed in the makeshift courtroom.
I enjoyed this episode. Neville makes Thorndyke rather more charismatic than I remember him from my teenage years, when I read many of the Freeman short stories, plus several of the novels. Jervis was played by James Cossins, best remembered as a hotel inspector in an episode of ‘Fawlty Towers’, while one of the cops was played by Terence Rigby, better known in the 70s as P.C. Snow in Softly, Softly.