If diamonds are a girl's best friend (as Carol Channing used to sing), then surely, if they are stolen, a fingerprint is a police officer's best friend? Well, perhaps not. For the young man whose bloody fingerprint was found inside the safe from which the diamonds had been stolen insisted that he had had nothing to do with the crime. And it was up to Dr. Thorndyke to show a criminal court - and the world - how that could be. You'll find the story in The Red Thumb Mark, by R. Austin Freeman, one of the earliest practitioners of the "scientific" detective story. The Red Thumb Mark is the subject of today's book review on the Classic Mysteries podcast, and you can listen to the complete review by clicking here.
Originally published in 1907,The Red Thumb Mark is not a murder mystery. Instead, it is focused on the theft of a valuable packet of diamonds. They have been stolen from the office of Reuben Hornby's father. In the safe where the diamonds had been kept, there is a bloody thumb print – the “red thumb mark” of the title. The thumb print matches that of Reuben Hornby. The expert witnesses for the police and the prosecution say it is an open and shut case: given the enormous odds against two people having the same thumb print, its presence at the scene of the crime must mean that Reuben is the thief. Dr. Thorndyke, however, believes there is a rational and convincing explanation of what really happened – and that explanation will exonerate Reuben Hornby. Fingerprints, in 1907, were still a relatively new tool for the police, and it was up to Dr. Thorndyke to prove that the police were wrong to place so much emphasis on what they were sure was incontrovertible evidence.
The Red Thumb Mark was the first of many novels written by Freeman about Dr. Thorndyke, whose detection was always firmly rooted in scientific fact. Freeman was very influential in the development of the American detective story, and this book, while there are no murders, manages to maintain a nice level of tension. It is long out of copyright, and there are a good many inexpensive and even free sources for the book. I think you'll enjoy reading it.
As part of my continuing commitment to the Vintage Mystery Bingo Reading Challenge under way at the My Reader's Block blog, I am submitting this to cover the Bingo square calling for one medical mystery featuring a doctor or a nurse. For details about the challenge, and what I'm doing for it, please click here.