11/12/2007

August Derleth on R. Austin Freeman

The concept behind MWA anthology Murder by Experts (1947) may sound rather trivial for modern readers as it has been done to death ever since, but it was quite original at the time: editor Ellery Queen asked twenty major mystery writers to select their favorite short stories by someone else and write a foreward detailing the reasons for their choices. August Derleth picked Freeman's Mr. Ponting's Alibi and his brief introduction is well worth reading, as it perfectly encapsulates the appeal of the Thorndyke stories:
 
"Mr. Ponting's Alibi is surely one of the best examples of the straightforward detective story, free of atmospheric high-jinks and ornamental furbelows. It is therefore in the best tradition of the detective story which, I must confess, has always taken and will always take first place in my affections. The story makes a steady, uninterrupted progression from the setting-forth of the case to the solution of the mystery; there are no forays into blind alleys, no pretentious essays into obscure knowledge properly confined to works of reference, no tricks upon the reader, and finally no trying of his patience.
 
 Above all, it is throughout an entirely plausible story. Stories even less plausible have taken place in real life, but it is particularly noteworthy that Mr. Ponting's Alibi, making no attempt to confuse the reader, nevertheless holds him. In plain fact, there is little actual mystery about Mr. Freeman's plot; it is all rather obvious from the beginning, the gambit is a familiar one, and it is evident that the patent suspect is not guilty at all, leaving but one avenue of detection, and Dr. John Thorndyke carries the reader down it without a single deviation.
 
 All the trappings of the Thorndyke stories are evident in Mr. Ponting's Alibi but none is obstructive. This is all to the good; a first-rate detective story ought not to emphasize the mechanics of detection at the expense of character or plot, and this story admirably fulfils that condition. Moreover, it offers a satisfying picture of one of the great detectives in action and, for my part, there are few sleuths, apart from Holmes, to whose performance I would rather be a party than Dr. John Thorndyke."
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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