The Red Thumb Mark is the novel that introduces to the world one of the greatest "scientific" detectives in all literature: Dr. John Thorndyke. It is rightly regarded as one of the all-time classics in mystery fiction. Raymond Chandler, for example, who typically hated British detective fiction for its consistent implausibilities, found Austin Freeman's work and The Red Thumb Mark highly entertaining and readable.
The novel concerns Thorndyke's attempts to clear the name of a young man accused of stealing diamonds from a safe. A thumb mark (finger print) near the scene of the crime is the only evidence against the young man, but it is decidedly damning. Add a little romance, a sinister villian lurking in the background, and you have the ingredients that make up this story.
I found the work to be wonderfully exciting. Watching Thorndyke break down the evidence against the young man is a fascinating expereince. Though a person could argue that too much detail is given to the "science" aspect, you have to understand that these scenes are the backbone of this type of detective story.
In a day and age of corporate villiany, brutal crime bosses and hideous serial killers, The Red Thumb Mark might seem to some readers as painfully old-fashioned. Freeman's writing is similar (and often compared with) Conan Doyle, and there's little doubt that Freeman found inspiration from the Holmes canon. However, the novel's old-fashioned flavor is the very reason to recommend it. It's fun to walk the streets of Edwardian England, to see the sights, to hear the gentlemanly discussions, to share the thought processes of one of the great detective minds. This is the real magic of the novel.
Sadly, most of Freeman's work has long, long been out of print. I would recommend hunting among the used book stores for his other great mysteries, especially The Silent Partner, The Eye of Osiris, and my all-time favorite Mr. Pottermack's Oversight. These great novels are as highly recommended as The Red Thumb Mark. Someday, I hope the world rediscovers this highly talented writer and that he is placed along side with the other great names where he belongs.