H.C. Bailey was one of the Big Five writers of the Golden Age, mentioned in the same breath as Edgar Allan Poe and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
Many critics – among them Dorothy L. Sayers, Howard Haycraft (Murder for Pleasure, 1941), and Torquemada (The Observer, 31 March 1935) – considered him one of the genre’s great writers.
Today, he is largely forgotten. For Julian Symons (Bloody Murder, 1971) and those like him “who find Fortune intolerably facetious and whimsical, and at times obscure, this unanimity of disregard will seem perfectly justified”.
Bailey’s neglect is unfortunate. His works, whether featuring the Home Office pathologist Reggie Fortune or the shyster lawyer Joshua Clunk, are morality plays about guilt and innocence, justice and compassion. At their best, they have the scope and bite of Dickens, and the same crusading spirit against social injustice; at their worst, they are mawkish, obscure, and precious.
Bailey’s stories are, as Nancy Ellen Taburt (“H.C. Bailey”, in Earl F. Bargainnier, 12 Englishmen of Mystery, 1984) recognized, allegories and parables, rather than realistic. Although Bailey was a Protestant, and religious motifs abound, many of the stories are modeled on the Wagnerian myth-drama, using a drama of individuals to address universal human themes, and on Greek tragedy, with an emphasis on hamartia and Nemesis, abnormal familial relationships and psychological obsession.
(See, for instance, “The Pink Macaw”. Bailey makes this clear in “The Greek Play”, about an attempted murder during a performance of Antigone.)
The characters are, in essence, archetypes, aspects of human nature personified; they have the hieratic qualities of the masked figures in Greek drama or the stylized icons in Byzantine art. The villains are personifications of vice, in the tradition of the mediaeval mystery play.
The settings are not realistic; rather, the rich soil and poor chalk Black Land, White Land (1937), the stinking rubbish dump of The Sullen Sky Mystery (1935), and the cathedral close in The Bishop’s Crime (1940) function both as actual settings and as symbols for the novels’ themes, just as the dust-heaps of Our Mutual Friend, the slums and mansions of Bleak House, or the Coketown of Hard Times do in Dickens.
Bailey’s fiction, like Dickens’, is driven by a strong sense of social justice. It has become a critical commonplace since Symons and Colin Watson (Snobbery with Violence, 1971) to argue that the detective story was conservative.
Bailey, though, seems to have been a Socialist. In “The Business Minister”, written in the 1910s, Mr. Fortune notes with “ineffable admiration” that one of the suspects (framed by the wicked business minister) is “reading a book by Mr. Sidney Webb on the history of trade unions”.
Bailey’s works depict a morally corrupt world where those with power – politicians, businessmen, and the aristocracy – use blackmail, drugs, slander, and vice to destroy their rivals and advance their position. (See, in particular, Shadow on the Wall, 1934, the first Mr. Fortune novel.)
The police are frequently inefficient or corrupt, the agents of officialdom and the ruling classes, and opposed to justice for the powerless. Often, they refuse to accept evidence of impending crime until the murder has been committed, or try to conceal murder, so as not to offend the local knobs. In “The Little Dog”, for instance, his superiors suspend the investigating policeman. In other stories, the police work against justice, committing murders and other crimes, or framing innocent people to get a quick arrest.
The same warped passions – greed, selfishness, envy, spite, and the desire for power – operate on a smaller scale in private homes. Many of the best stories focus on destructive family relationships and perverted emotions; Bailey had, as Sayers recognized, a keen understanding of mental abnormality.
“The Broken Toad”, arguably his masterpiece, reveals the great gulf between being nice and doing good, between self-sacrifice and charity, SPOILER (highlight to read) in its memorable depiction of mother love gone badly wrong. “The Yellow Slugs”, perhaps Bailey’s most famous work, presents the victimisation of two children at the hands of their ghastly stepfather, Brightman, sadist, thief, murderer, and religious hypocrite. “The Unknown Murderer” thrives on the sufferings of her victims’ loved ones. The criminal in “The Long Dinner” is a philanthropist who murders the unwanted offspring of wealthy patrons, and devotes the money to saving poor children.
Bailey places his faith not in rampant individualism, which is selfish and destructive, but in mankind’s ability to function as a whole: the integration of the individual into society. In a symbolically important scene, which Bailey himself quoted in his essay on Mr. Fortune, Shadow on the Wall ends with Fortune and police chief Lomas joining the crowd of ordinary people going home. The “fundamental decency of people” has defeated vice.
Bailey is a social artist, concerned with the community as a whole. As in Greek tragedy, he depicts through individuals the problems that beset mankind, and ends with an affirmation of socially unified humanity rising above them.
The detective as actor
Unlike most of his contemporaries, Bailey was not interested in the detective problem for its own sake. He could plot extremely well, and some of his misdirection is excellent, but he seldom tries to conceal the criminal.
The culprit is often the main suspect, obvious from the start, gradually revealed, announced halfway through, or (less often) identified at the end on flimsy evidence. In this, Bailey is firmly in the line of Conan Doyle, for whom adventure and storytelling were more important than detection.
For Bailey, however, deceiving the reader is less important than exploring problems of character and moral responsibility. To this end, his stories work as a unified whole, composed of the shape of the story, the setting, the atmosphere, the murderer’s character and motive, and the resolution.
The power of Bailey’s works often comes not from the solution to the mystery, but from the resolution of the situation: what happens to the characters, and why. Almost all of Bailey’s stories show the detective taking moral responsibility for a situation, whether to punish or to absolve the wrongdoer. His detectives have the confidence in themselves to be guardians of society. Whether they are justified in doing so is another matter.
The detective is normally, as S.S. Van Dine (writing as Willard Huntington Wright, “The Great Detective Stories”, 1927) argued, a detached observer akin to the deus ex machina and chorus in Greek tragedy. Bailey raises Mr. Fortune to the level of an agonist, someone whose actions can be scrutinized and whose moral stance questioned.
Mr. Fortune is, as Taburt suggests, motivated by compassion for the underdog and anger at an unjust society. He often acts as judge, jury, and executioner; he sees himself as the workings of a natural law, the inescapable vengeance visited upon wrongdoers whom the law cannot touch, and so is a vigilante instrument of divine justice.
Is Mr. Fortune as righteous as he seems? Like the criminals he detects, he, too, murders, he sets himself apart from society, and he believes he has the right to judge others and punish them. Mr. Fortune’s judgements are erratic. Sometimes the criminals go unpunished, if Mr. Fortune sympathizes with his motives, and sees the crime as an act of justice. Sometimes, he will murder a wrongdoer; in other stories, he lets criminals go, because he believes their actions justified.
SPOILERS (highlight to read) – This reveals the endings of “The Only Son”, “The Woman in Wood”, “The Cigarette Case”, “The Bicycle Lamp”, “The Mountain Meadow”, and “The Silver Cross”
In “The Only Son”, for instance, he prevents a couple of criminals from making a son murder his mother. Because they will only go to prison for a few years, he forces them to commit suicide. The criminals have “gone to trial”—that is, to Judgement, or as Reggie says on other occasions, been “referred to a higher court”.
In “The Woman in Wood”, he sends the villains off to sea in a leaking boat, much to the horror of his chauffeur, Sam.
Most drastic of all is “The Cigarette Case”. The death that Fortune investigates may not be murder, but one person is morally responsible, since he intended murder, and is a domestic tyrant to boot. Reggie incites this person to try to kill him so that he can push him off a cliff and call it self-defence. What Mr. Fortune calls “doing good”, therefore, is an Anthony Berkeley-type altruistic murder! Very wisely, Bailey makes it unclear whether or not he approves of his character’s actions. There is invariably another character—a policeman like Lomas or Superintendent Bell—to register the average reader’s disapproval and shock, and offer a conflicting viewpoint.
Elsewhere, Fortune tries to protect, rather than persecute, the murderer. In the powerful “Bicycle Lamp”, an honourable man kills his son, a forger and believed murderer, to stop him from crime. To save a wrongly arrested man, even though he knows that there is no real case against him, the Chief Constable, by profession a judge, engineers his suicide—and is condemned by Fortune. Who is right?
Equally notable is “The Mountain Meadow”, which has one of Bailey’s bitterest endings. Fortune is powerless to prevent a miscarriage of justice, much to his anger. An innocent man, however unpleasant, should not be arrested for a crime he did not commit. And yet both Fortune and the French policeman, Dubois, both feel that the victim and the wrongfully arrested man got what they deserved, because they were wicked businessmen. If Reggie acquiesces in miscarriages of justice of this sort, if he feels that people should be punished on moral grounds for crimes they didn’t commit, how far can he be trusted?
This question is indirectly raised by “The Silver Cross”, which, written earlier, contradicts the argument of “The Cigarette Case”. The villain, the local big man, attempts to frame a saintly vicar for theft. The villain comes under suspicion of murder, but the man he tried to frame clears him. Although there is no doubt that he is morally responsible for the death, which turns out to be suicide, he goes unpunished, at least in this world.
Mr. Fortune’s claim of divine sanction for his most monstrous actions is suspicious, like a detective story with as hero Meyerbeer’s Jean of Leiden, a tyrannical demagogue who claims to be the Son of God!
Mr. Fortune and the justice he seeks, because inconsistent in philosophy and (literally) execution, are ultimately exposed as philosophically dubious.
Although Mr. Fortune acts for justice and the greater good, Bailey’s other detectives, particularly Joshua Clunk, serve as an ironic commentary on his ethics.
Clunk is a hypocritical lawyer who claims to be doing God’s work while profiting from miscarriages of justice and even orchestrating murder. He is an ironic transposition of Fortune’s qualities, including his gourmanderie (guzzling boiled sweets), apostrophizing (he frequently sings snatches of hymns, and runs a chapel), and his dubious relationship with the police.
The detective in the non-series novel The Man in the Cape (1933) is also a villain; he commits the second murder to get the truth out of his victim and frame the principal murderer. He shows no remorse, but, like Mr. Fortune and Clunk, proclaims that he is doing the work of Providence.
And yet these men are rare protectors of the innocent, the weak, and the powerless in a hostile world. Their actions may be criminal, but they achieve good. It is this ambivalence and ambiguity which make Bailey’s work so fascinating and dynamic.
Bailey transformed the detective story into a passionate, morally complex work.
In the aftermath of the Great War, Bailey depicts a morally corrupt society. The aristocracy are exposed as proud and vicious, businessmen as greedy and ruthless. Those who should protect the innocent are often themselves criminals or incompetent. The Great Detective himself is ambiguously portrayed as a righteous man who highhandedly plays with human lives, or a hypocrite who claims to interpret the will of God.
The Mr. Fortune stories are one of the most complex, thematically dense works of art the detective story ever produced. Bailey’s ironic world vision, his interrogation of justice and moral responsibility, is timeless and universal.
Bailey’s place in the genre
Bailey, like G.K. Chesterton, showed the detective story could deal with moral drama and politics, as well as with the mystery. . If their work has a flaw, from a purist standpoint, it is that detection and plot are increasingly subordinated to theme and social commentary. Chesterton’s later Father Brown stories are Catholic apologetica, in which the murderr can be spotted by his political beliefs, and all Catholics are automatically innocent. Bailey’s late works are often impenetrable, with a convoluted plot recounted in an allusive, gnomic style. Yet the great early works are staggering achievements in the genre, and models for later writers.
- The great works of Sayers’s late period—Murder Must Advertise (1933), in which the advertising industry and the drug traffic are symptomatic of exploitation of the public, and The Nine Tailors (1934), in which the religious theme is manifest in the landscape;
- E.R. Punshon, with his use of atmosphere, colour, philosophy, literary motifs (Greek tragedy, Shakespeare, the Brothers Grimm), and a marked liberal social commentary – e.g. the denunciation of Fascism and sympathy for the plight of the Jews in Crossword Mystery (1934) and Dictator’s Way (1938)
- Gladys Mitchell
- Michael Innes’ early books
- more recently, Reginald Hill’s masterworks
Other writers adopted Bailey’s stylistic mannerisms or plotting techniques, although without his moral complexity.
- Philip Macdonald borrowed many stylistic mannerisms (the staccato style mocked by Barzun), while the regular cast is genius detective / police chief / police inspector / detective’s wife (Fortune / Lomas / Bell / Joan; Gethryn / Lucas / Pike / Lucia).
- Douglas G. Browne’s Harvey Tuke is consulted by Scotland Yard in a semi-official position, and his sparring friendship with Sir Bruton Kames is the same as that of Fortune and Lomas.
- Anthony Gilbert’s Cockney lawyer Arthur Crook is a more sympathetic version of Josh Clunk, forever riding to the rescue of damsels in distress.
- In America, the celebrated S.S. Van Dine’s Nietzschean æsthete Philo Vance was an imitation of Fortune, much to the horror of the British critics. “About that sour and shadowy caricature of Mr. Bailey’s Reggie, it seems that nothing can be done. Mr. Van Dine believes in him; that is our ill luck and his bad Fortune” (Torquemada, Observer, 8 December 1935).