Independent Woman : R. Austin Freeman -“Helen Vardon’s Confession” (Dr. Thorndyke Series)

I know it’s been almost a century, but I still found it on the unclassy side when Dean Koontz casually spoiled the epochal twist in Agatha Christie’s “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd” in the first few pages of “Odd Thomas”. Fine, everyone knows what happens there. But do they know what happens in “Helen Vardon’s Confession”?

helen

This addition to the Doctor Thorndyke series was published in 1922, four years before Christie’s more famous novel, and I can not help but think of it as a direct precursor, in that here we have the first-hand account of a crime (or a couple of crimes) from the perspective of a female narrator (unusual enough for the genre) who is not the investigator, or a Watson to the investigator, and who may even be a suspect.

Helen Vardon is a studious young woman who, while innocently questing for a particularly trenchant article from Addison and Steele’s “The Spectator” on the issue of Queen Anne, overhears that her father is on the border of economic scandal… And that the villainous blackmailer, a Mister Otway several decades her senior, will let it go if Helen agrees to marry. Her father refuses, but Helen bravely accepts the deal to save Dad from prison.

If this was a romance, she might grow to love the beastly blackmailer. Instead, Helen’s father dies right away under suspicious circumstances, making her sacrifice pointless, and the novel goes to some non-mystery places, as Helen separates from her new husband and learns to make a living for herself in a community of female artists. In fact, fans of Freeman’s previous whodunits were probably puzzled by the many pages devoted to Helen making new friends, learning a trade as a silversmith, developing an interest in the hypnosis fad of the time, and rekindling a relationship with a friend of her youth.  Only at the end does Thorndyke make much of a presence. This is Helen’s story; the story, to all extents and purposes, of a divorced woman standing on her own, and the bulk of the novel is constructed so that the reader of the 1920s can’t help but sympathize with what at the time was still shocking behavior.

As a mystery, the novel is much too long, and yes, Thorndyke is missed. Since Freeman tries to support the efforts of Helen to “self-actualize,” the forward-thinking thought in display is tampered by Helen’s perfect propriety.  The modern eye is upset by the idea that a century ago, people (men and women) could not get legally divorced without meeting any number of extreme legal requisites, whereas the one requisite needed is: “I no longer wish to be married to this person.” (We’re still working on this area.)

Also upsetting to the modern eye: Freeman’s many anti-Semitic barbs. Here, any number of Jewish characters conspire in greed, as though somehow the pure, civilized Anglican character is above the petty matter of money.

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