Friday, 2 May 2014

09:34 – Last month was our worst month for kit sales in more than a year. I’m not too worried. These things fluctuate, and we’re still running something like 160% of last year’s sales through April.

I’m still filling labeled bottles, and I’ve managed to cut the backlog down to less than 2,000, or roughly 60 kits’ worth. Of course, UPS delivered several thousand bottles yesterday, so Barbara will soon be building up that backlog again.

I decided to re-read all of R. Austin Freeman’s mysteries, which I last read about 50 years ago. Many have compared Freeman to Doyle and Christie, but in my opinion Freeman is better. His protagonist, Doctor John Evelyn Thorndyke, is what today would be called a forensic scientist, a fictional close contemporary of the great Sir Bernard Spilsbury.

But, unlike Doyle and Christie, Freeman wrote from direct experience. Thorndyke’s fictional laboratory is a more-or-less exact representation of Freeman’s actual laboratory. When Thorndyke performs forensic test procedures, he is merely reproducing what Freeman actually did in his own lab as he was writing the story. And Freeman “plays fair” with the reader, assuming that the reader has a great deal of arcane forensics knowledge.

I’d started to explore forensic science in detail by the time I was in sixth grade. Our librarian knew my interests, and one day she handed me a book and said she thought I’d really like it. It was Freeman’s The Red Thumb Mark, the first of his novels published under his own name, and she was right. When I returned it the next week, she asked if I’d figured it out. I told her that I had figured it out very early in the book, and that literally one word had given it all away. As soon as I saw that one word, I knew exactly who had done it and how it had been done.

So I read the rest of Freeman’s novels and short stories as fast as the librarian was able to get them for me. I figured most of them out early, because Freeman always told his readers early everything they needed to know to figure out the mystery (or, with his “inverted mysteries”, everything they needed to know to figure out how to do it). To figure things out often required some serious research. We didn’t have Wikipedia back then, so I often found myself delving deep into technical tomes about alkaloid poisons and so on. And what I found always confirmed that what Freeman wrote about forensic procedures was an accurate reflection of the state of forensic science in the early 20th century.

If you want to give Freeman a try, I recommend that you start with The Red Thumb Mark. It, as well as the rest of Freeman’s Thorndyke novels and short stories, are readily available free or at very low cost in e-book form. Amazon’s Kindle store has many of them free or for $0.99.