R. Austin Freeman: The Mystery of Angelina Frood

The Mys­tery of An­geli­na Frood (1924) is one of Free­man's most po­lit­i­cal­ly in­ter­est­ing nov­els. It opens with a por­trait of wife abuse, done in Free­man's most elab­o­rate style (Chap­ters 1-5). The novel was writ­ten long be­fore fem­i­nists start­ed treat­ing spousal abuse as a po­lit­i­cal issue. Free­man has no con­scious­ness that there should be sys­tem­at­ic reme­dies ad­dressed to the prob­lem, such as new laws or shel­ters. Such po­lit­i­cal so­lu­tions will come much later. What there is in Free­man is a de­tailed look at the prob­lem, one that re­fus­es to sweep it under the rug. Free­man shows how se­ri­ous such a sit­u­a­tion can be for women. Noth­ing in the novel sug­gests it is an atyp­i­cal prob­lem: the events could clear­ly be typ­i­cal for a lot of women. Free­man's doc­tor nar­ra­tor looks into the sit­u­a­tion from a med­i­cal point of view. The book also views it as a prac­ti­cal and legal plight.

Free­man is try­ing to gen­er­ate more light than heat: all the abuse takes place off stage, and is talked about, not de­pict­ed live. In­stead, Free­man con­cen­trates on mak­ing us un­der­stand all the as­pects of the sit­u­a­tion.

The spousal abuse is treat­ed as a Free­man "case", one of those col­lec­tions of events he stud­ies in full de­tail, and in­ves­ti­gates from every angle. Often such cases are at the cen­ter of a mys­tery in Free­man, and that is what hap­pens here, as the case tuns into one of Free­man's baf­fling mys­ter­ies. Such cases are pri­ma­ry struc­tural build­ing blocks of Free­man's books. A case as a whole is what Thorndyke in­ves­ti­gates. It is also what the nar­ra­tor of Free­man's later nov­els often sets forth in de­tail as a wit­ness. The fact that the wife abuse is treat­ed as a Free­man case gives it a weight and grav­i­ty it would not oth­er­wise pos­sess. Free­man re­gard­ed his cases as im­por­tant: they have pres­tige and cen­tral­i­ty in his books. Mak­ing the wife abuse into a case is Free­man's way of stress­ing its sig­nif­i­cance.

The book opens with the struc­ture fa­mil­iar from Free­man's tril­o­gy: a young doc­tor nar­ra­tor, sub­sti­tut­ing for an es­tab­lished doc­tor and his prac­tice, is called out at night on a sin­is­ter emer­gen­cy. How­ev­er, this early in­ci­dent is more close­ly in­te­grat­ed in what fol­lows than in the tril­o­gy. It is not a sep­a­rate event, marked off from the rest of the book, but mere­ly the open­ing salvo. It does add to the book's feel­ing of mys­tery, but it is also some­thing of the "wrong shape" into which the open­ing sec­tions could be poured.

An­geli­na Frood is paradig­mat­ic of Free­man's later mys­ter­ies in sev­er­al ways. As Thorndyke him­self points out, most of the in­for­ma­tion in the story is ob­tained from a sin­gle wit­ness. This wit­ness is also the nar­ra­tor, as is com­mon, for all or part of the late nov­els. The book con­cerns a dis­ap­pear­ance, with all the hor­ri­ble un­cer­tain­ty this pre­sup­pos­es. Free­man's char­ac­ters al­most never find a body in the li­brary: in­stead, some­body dis­ap­pears, and ev­ery­one spends weeks just try­ing to es­tab­lish the sim­plest facts. The po­lice con­fine them­selves to try­ing to track down the corpse. The other char­ac­ters in the book are not treat­ed as sus­pects, and there is lit­tle in­ves­ti­ga­tion of their lives or ac­tiv­i­ties, as there would be in say, Van Dine school writ­ers. Even scraps of in­for­ma­tion are hard to come by, and are clutched at tena­cious­ly by ev­ery­one in­ves­ti­gat­ing the crime. Great stress is laid on pho­tographs, draw­ings and vi­su­al de­scrip­tions of peo­ple. These are usu­al­ly pro­duced com­plete­ly in­de­pen­dent­ly of any help from the po­lice, as are fin­ger­prints. There is a sense of dark­ness hov­er­ing over the book.

Ex­cept for the ul­ti­mate so­lu­tion, the first half of The Mys­tery of An­geli­na Frood (1924) is much more in­ter­est­ing than the sec­ond. The first half sets forth a well-con­struct­ed mys­tery plot about an abused woman. The sec­ond half is full of red her­rings. Both the writ­ing and the plot­ting be­come arch. The read­er is being treat­ed to less of a gen­uine de­tec­tive story here.

Mike Grost