- By H.C. Bailey
- First published: US: Doubleday, 1945; UK: Macdonald, 1946
I picked up The Wrong Man at the Mysterious Bookshop in New York in June, and put it down again after 50-odd pages. I tried again, finished it, and probably won’t read it again.
I’m a big H. C. Bailey fan; I’d gladly accompany Reggie Fortune on any of his shorter cases, as he examines decomposing bodies in woodlands full of bluebells and then goes home for strawberries and cream, moaning and mumbling all the while. Several of the novels – Shadow on the Wall (1934), The Sullen Sky Mystery (1935), Black Land, White Land (1937), and The Bishop’s Crime (1940) – can happily stand alongside the best of Sayers or Allingham as detective stories that are also Novels.
But late Bailey is well-nigh unreadable. The early ones are elegant and clever – mannered, perhaps, but so are Edwardian stylists like Saki. The later ones are a chore to read. Staccato sentences, often incomplete, without prepositions or pronouns. Punctuation erratic or absent. Reams of unproductive, riddling conversation – cryptic remarks and odd bits of slang. Sentences that don’t flow, and aren’t connected at the basic syntactical level. Paragraphs that have to be read twice to make any sense.
What went wrong – and where was his editor?
Maybe Bailey decided to go modern – and molded himself on Stein and Joyce. Maybe he was gaga.
They’re not very good mysteries, either. The Life Sentence is an inflated short story; Honour Among Thieves is a gang thriller; and Saving a Rope has no discernible plot.
This one has its moments – I enjoyed the chapter where Mr. Clunk’s agent investigates the death of an antique dealer and his partner in the war, supposedly in enemy action – but they’re moments. The mystery is very nebulous. There’s more talk and speculation than plot; some flurries of action; and a tangled mess of a solution with four (!) murderers, several loose ends (Inspector Clarke and Major Lydyard), and almost no clues.
Give me an early Mr. Fortune, please.
Colonel Baker of the American Army felt that he owed his life to the bravery of British Army Officer Bill Thirl. When Baker got back to England he learned that Bill had been reported captured and shot by the Germans, so he journeyed to a small village to see what he could do for Bill’s wife.
He found Mrs. Thirl curiously unconcerned about her husband’s fate. She seemed mixed up with an unattractive English major, with the manager of the office where she worked, and with Mr. and Mrs. Afflock, recent proprietors of the old Farways Inn. Eventually a pattern began to appear to Colonel Baker, a pattern that linked Mrs. Thirl’s family and lost estate with the major, the innkeepers, and the plant manager. The next day, under a pile of sawdust in the woods, the body of a girl clerk from Mrs. Thirl’s office was found.
Facing a swarm of perplexing questions, Colonel Baker got in touch with Joshua Clunk, and Clunk, with his capacity to smell money at a distance, took on the case with gusto and quotations. He, Baker, and Inspector Underwood worked together to prove that the wrong man could be the right murderer.
NY Times (Isaac Anderson, 9th September 1945, 110w): It is easier to bear with Clunk’s slimy hypocrisy when one has a straight shooter like Colonel Baker working with him.
Weekly Book Review (Will Cuppy, 9th September 1945, 180w): What with multiple murder, several villains of almost equal wickedness and detection by various hands, especially those of outrageous Joshua Clunk, Mr. Bailey’s new mystery somewhat resembles a big tent show, well worth the price of admission.
New Yorker (15th September 1945, 80w): Rather difficult going even for Clunk’s admirers.
Sat R of Lit (22nd September 1945, 50w): Standard brand.
New Repub (24th September 1945, 90w): Mr. C., in excellent form, untangles the threads of a neat and nasty piece of work. Only a so-so job.
Observer (Maurice Richardson, 21st April 1946): In H.C. Bailey’s The Wrong Man, Mr. Clunk is called in by a singularly wooden American colonel to investigate a murder mystery at a country hotel. Not bad, but I’ve read better Baileys.
6 thoughts on “The Wrong Man (H. C. Bailey)”
Your spoilers show up as yellow font on a white background. I can’t read any of them, unfortunately. Is there some trick one can use to change the font color or background? If not, could you please consider using an alternative format? Thanks!
The yellow font’s deliberate; it shows that there *are* spoilers, without saying what they are. You should be able to read the spoilers if you highlight them! (Move your cursor over the text, hold down the left mouse button as you would in Word – et voilà!)
Thanks. That trick indeed unhides the spoilers. The only downside is that I got the highlighting to work well on my iPad for short text only. I’ll have to get off my couch and walk over to my PC more!
Like yourself I’m an enthusiast regarding the Reggie Fortune short stories but much less so in the novel format. I have read a few of the longer works like The Bishop’s Crime and Clunk books such as Dead Man’s Shoes and The Sullen Sky Mystery but clearly the shorter form was better suited to Bailey’s particular talents. I have avoided later works since other reviewers have also warned of his declining readability. Thanks for this review and I believe I’ll avoid this one as well.
Smart move – I read these books so you don’t have to! 😉 Some of the ’40s novels aren’t bad: Bishop’s Crime, No Murder, Cat’s Whisker – but, as you say, Bailey’s forte was the short story. Are we as readers biased towards novels?