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Mr Pottermack's Oversight is a mystery novel by R. Austin Freeman. Freeman invented the inverted mystery in which the crime is first shown, often from the PoV of the criminal, and then the process of detection is shown. Mr Pottermack's Oversight is of this type.

The novel starts with a convict (Jeff Brandon) on the run after escaping from a prison work gang, near the sea in England. He finds a heap of clothes apparently left by someone who walked into the water, some hours earlier as shown by the state of the tide. He takes off his prison outfit, and puts on the abandoned clothes, and make his way into the country away from the sea. Searchers find the clothes and assume he tried to swim out to a passing ship or barge. Some weeks later Brandon reads a newspaper account of an inquest in which a drowned nude man is identified as Jeff Brandon, an escaped convict. Brandon, under a false name, gets a job on a tramp steamer which takes him to the US.

The scene shifts forward some 14 or 15 years. Brandon is blackmailed by a man who knew him before his conviction. Hew is now living under the name of Marcus Pottermack, and is well-off enough to own a house with no need to work. Brandon kills the blackmailer in a fight, and the body flies into a disused well. But Brandon (Pottermack) must fake footprints so that the blackmailer's track does not stop at his garden gate.

During the course of the investigation it is mentions that Brandon had been convicted of forgery some 15 years previously, and has escaped from prison after "about a year" of his 5-year sentence. He was in his early 20s at the time of his conviction, it is said.

We also learn that in the US Brandon worked as an accountant and then was in business as an investor, earning and saving enough to retire and return to England with capitol to live on for the rest of his life.

The novel has a copyright date of 1930, and the major "present day" part of the action could be roughly 1930 from the descriptions, no specific historical events are mentioned. It is said that the manager of a small bank branch had a salary of 600 pounds per year, if that helps in fixing the date.

But if the later scenes are set in 1930, the escape 14 or 15 years before would have been in 1915 or 16, right in the middle of WWI. Coast areas would have been much more heavily patrolled, and tramp steamers from the US, if present at all, would have been much more careful about taking on unskilled seamen. For the matter of that, Brandon would have been quite likely to have been in the military, not still working in a bank. Moreover, a young man with no family in the US might well have been drafted after the US entered WWI. There is no mention of the possibility, or even of the war.

Thus it seems to me that the action must be set somewhat earlier, so that the escape takes place well before WWI. But that still leaves the issue of Brandon possibly being drafted while in the US. Is any setting possible that avoids these issues? Is there any evidence in the test itself which perhaps I have missed?

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  • Being drafted would depend on appearing on the lists of those draftable. Depending on how he assumed a new identity, that might just not have occurred. If the identity was of a non-us citizen for example.
    – Spagirl
    Commented Aug 1, 2021 at 8:53
  • Could it have been set a few years in the future of 1930? If there are no present-day events to pin down the date, the author may have just assumed the world wouldn't change drastically in five years.
    – Peter Shor
    Commented Aug 3, 2021 at 13:33
  • @Peter Shor It is possible. The same author's The Eye of Osiris was copyright 1911, but set in 1900 and 1902, as proved by the date of a newspaper story quoted in the first chapter. His 1912 novel Mystery of 31 New inn ws an expansion of a short story apparently intended to introduce Thorndyke and therefore probably written before The Red Thumb Mark (1907). It is unusual for a mystery to be set much after it is written, but nothign prevents it. Commented Aug 3, 2021 at 14:05
  • Regarding the earlier question concerning The Eye of Osiris. It was the first Thorndyke novel to be written but was rejected by McClure's. Although Freeman disagreed he did re-write it [perhaps not as extensively as believed]. In the meantime Freeman then published The Red Thumb Mark as amended to read as the introduction to Dr Thorndyke. The original manuscript was published many years later as The Other Eye of Osiris. Commented Mar 30, 2023 at 9:05

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It seems to me that the whole story is set before WWI, considering how easy it was to find domestic servants, and how apparently affordable having them was. Mr. Pottermack has two - a housekeeper and a maid - to take care of himself alone. Even Alice, despite her "strained means" (ch. 10) and lack of family has a full time maid rather than a char woman a couple of times a week that a woman in her position would have had in 1920s. Also, she doesn't consider supplementing her "strained means" by taking a job - something that healthy childless woman in her mid-thirties would very likely have done in 1920s. On the other hand, it's unlikely to be much earlier than WWI, considering that the narrator describes widow's weeds as definitely a thing of the past (ch.1)

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  • Thank you. This is at least possible. The novel The Red Thumb Mark by the same author was published in 1907, but set in 1901, as proved by a date quoted on the paper with the titular thumb mark. I will need to reread Mr Pottermack's Oversight to see if anything seems incompatible with a setting of the years prior to WWI. Commented Mar 5, 2023 at 19:49
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If he had escaped in 1915 or 1916, in the middle of WWI, he would have been a fugitive from justice, and it seems very unlikely that he could either have gone back to his job at the bank, or have gone to the Army and signed up.

A tramp steamer might have taken him on as crew, and been under the assumption that he was trying to avoid the draft, rather than being an escaped prisoner (in which case they probably wouldn't have hired him). Was this illegal on the steamers' part? I don't know, but it seems quite plausible that not all tramp steamers felt obliged to strictly obey British law, especially if they badly needed an extra crewman.

As for how he avoided the draft in the U.S., in WWI, only about 25% of male Americans of the right ages served in the armed forces (see this webpage), so he would not have drawn attention to himself simply by being a young man who wasn't serving. Further, since he didn't have any official papers, the draft board probably wouldn't even have had his name, and so wouldn't have found him.

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According to the BBC radio broadcast of 1963, it was set in 1904

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    This would be excellent, if only you could back it up. Can you link to an official transcript/recording, please?
    – CDR
    Commented Dec 3, 2023 at 22:26
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    But what did the BBC radio broadcast base that date on? Freeman died in 1943 so it seems unlikely that they got it from him. It was probably the script-writer's choice based on similar considerations to those in Rose B's answer. Commented Dec 4, 2023 at 10:43

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