by A.J. Cronin
160 pages, Birlinn
Review by Hereward L. M. Proops
Sometimes I wonder if my wife actually understands me. Though I appreciated the gesture, the gift of Dr Finlay's Casebook came as somewhat of a surprise. I'd never expressed any interest in reading the works of A.J. Cronin. Nor had I hinted that I was interested in reading about a small medical practice in the Scottish Highlands during the 1920s. Indeed, the only reason I could think of for her purchase was that this book had a similar name to that of my own (The Casebook of Edmund Forrester, available to buy from Lulu.com for a very reasonable ￡2). Those who have read my efforts will know that I write tales of supernatural mystery and action in an effort to recapture the spirit of the pulps and penny dreadfuls. A.J. Cronin's sedate tales of the trials and tribulations of a dashing young country doctor are about as far away from my own stories as it is possible to get.
It was with a considerable sense of foreboding that I picked up the book and began to read. The speed at which I completed the collection is testament to Cronin's skill as a writer. Did I identify with the world he portrayed? Not really, but it is described so well and brought to life with such deft touches of humour and pathos that it is impossible not to be swept up in the flow of it. Did I like the central character of Doctor Finlay? No. I found him a smug, self-righteous git whose utter inability to maintain any semblance of a relationship with a member of the opposite sex smacks of the worst kind of bedside manner. His persistent rejection of female companionship is only matched by his lovesick self-pity when he finally becomes aware of his true feelings. A pillar of the community, popular with virtually all the inhabitants of Tannochbrae and staggeringly generous (when he finds himself in possession of a fine house next to his practice, he gives it to the local hospital as a rest-home for crippled children), Finlay is such an all-round nice guy he makes you want to puke blood.
Fortunately, the straight-laced Finlay is surrounded by a cast of eccentric, colourful and very believable characters. There's the elderly spinsters who have a minor disagreement, agree never to speak to one another again and proceed to communicate via hand-written notes for the next fifteen years. There's a wonderful tale involving a hen-pecked husband who feigns amnesia in order to have a week away from his nagging wife. Finlay's colleague, the elderly Doctor Cameron, is prone to shirk his responsibilities and allow the saintly young doctor to shoulder the burden of the practice. The two doctors employ an irascible housekeeper called Janet whose sharp tongue and variable culinary skills provide many of the collection's comic moments.
The book actually comprises of two collections, “Doctor Finlay of Tannochbrae” (1978) and “Adventures of a Black Bag” (1943). Strangely, the two collections seem to have been printed out of sequence (the events in “Adventures” appear to take place before those of “Tannochbrae”). This is a minor issue but one that publisher Birlinn ought to have been aware of.
Cronin's writing is delightful – as touching as it is amusing. Though the stories do not provide many significant belly-laughs, they will leave the reader with a pleasantly warm feeling inside. The collection harks back to a simpler time but never portrays the past through rose-tinted spectacles. The simplicity of Cronin's style masks the fact that the writer possessed the rare talent of being able to capture all the strange and wonderful quirks of human nature.
Despite my initial misgivings, I found Dr Finlay's Casebook to be a thoroughly enjoyable read. Perhaps my wife knows me better than I know myself.
Hereward L. M. Proops