"The history upon which I am now embarking abounds in incidents so amazing that, as I look back on them, a something approaching to scepticism contends with my vivid recollections and makes me feel almost apologetic in laying them before the reader. Some of them indeed are so out of character with the workaday life in which they happened that they will appear almost incredible; but none is more fraught with mystery than the experience that befell me on a certain September night in the last year of my studentship and ushered in the rest of the astounding sequence."
This is how a newly-minted English doctor named Humphrey Jardine begins his narrative of the most peculiar events which befell him on that September night - and would lead him into grave danger. First, Dr. Jardine, out for a night-time walk, practically stumbled over the dead body of an unknown man. When he tried to bring police back to the scene, they found...nothing. No body, no evidence. But then, Dr. Jardine became aware that somebody was now making a very determined effort to kill him. Fortunately, his former teacher and good friend, Dr. John Thorndyke, became interested in his case. And in order to solve the mystery, Dr. Thorndyke would have to rely on the testimony of A Silent Witness - the name of the 1914 book by R. Austin Freeman which is the subject of today's audio review on the Classic Mysteries podcast. You can listen to the complete review by clicking here.
It would be fair to describe Dr. Jardine as being, perhaps, not the sharpest pencil in the drawer, for it takes him a remarkable amount of time to realize, first of all, that he appears to have stumbled into a murder case, and, second and perhaps more important, that somebody is trying very hard to kill him - and nearly succeeding.
It is only through the intervention of Dr. Thorndyke, in fact, that Jardine’s life is saved on more than one occasion in A Silent Witness, for Dr. Jardine has the unfortunate habit of accepting nearly everything he hears at face value, including invitations to answer mysterious summonses at night to remote and desolate locations. In fact, after his first discovery of that body on Hampstead Heath, he goes to the other side of London some days later to examine the body of another man who has died under rather odd circumstances. Once again, Dr. Jardine finds himself a target for someone – a murderer, perhaps - who quite clearly believes that the doctor is a threat to his own safety. But Dr. Jardine can think of nothing that he has seen or heard that could threaten anyone, and he insists that he has no enemies. It will take a lot of digging – and some rather interesting scientific experiments on all sorts of physical evidence – for Dr. Thorndyke to determine what is going on, and why Dr. Jardine appears to be in such danger.
First published in 1914, A Silent Witness was one of the first books to feature Dr. Thorndyke, the creation of author, R. Austin Freeman. Mystery historian Otto Penzler has called Dr. Thorndyke “the most significant scientific detective in literature.” As a character, he reveals himself as a person who pursues justice, and the answers to puzzling problems, by looking for solid evidence, usually involving physical objects rather than personalities. He is usually called upon to testify on behalf of the prosecution in criminal proceedings. Freeman's stories about Dr. Thorndyke were very influential on the development of "scientific detectives" in mystery fiction. The book is available in a variety of editions and formats, both e-book and paper, and is highly recommended.