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In the footsteps of Dr Thorndyke

29 March, 2019 — By The Xtra Diary

The Greek Street property with façade remaining


Regular readers of Diary will know how much we love a literary reference to our patch, so it was with some glee we found ourselves enjoying a short story by the great Victorian/Edwardian detective novelist R Austin Freeman that has very precise descriptions of a pre-war West End.

R Austin Freeman’s character Dr John Thorndyke, who appears in many of his novels, stars in The Moabite Cipher, a short story about a note, sent from a convict to an address in Greek Street, and contain- ing a mysterious code…

The story itself starts in Oxford Street as a Russian grand duke pays a state visit and is accompanied by a British prince in a carriage. A man in the crowd attracts the attention of Special Branch and kickstarts a mystery involving codes, arsenic poisoning, rooms in Greek Street and Wardour Street, invisible ink and a stash from a robbery in Piccadilly… And what strikes most is the wonderful imagery of the West End. Freeman’s

descriptive passages bring the place alive in a similar way old photographs do: for example, we are told that “…No 13 Greek Street was one of those houses that irresistibly suggest to the observer the idea of a church organ, either jamb of the doorway being adorned with a row of brass bell handles corresponding to the stop-knobs…”

Dr Thorndyke and a police sergeant have headed there to deliver an envelope they have found on the body of a man killed in a freakish accident: and when they arrive, we are told “…the sergeant examined with an air of an expert musician, and having, as

it were, gauged the cap- acity of the instrument, selected the middle knob on the right hand side and pulled it briskly; whereupon a first floor window was thrown up and a head protruded…”

Diary had a wander along Greek Street to find Number 13 and hopefully find the door bell pulls in situ. No such luck, as the building bearing that number is under redevelopment, its doors are sealed with heavy steel and all that remains is its façade, with nothing but fresh air behind it.

Such change makes Thorndyke’s adventures even more interesting, taking us back to an era long gone…

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