By H.C. Bailey
First published: UK, Methuen, 1927; US, Dutton, 1928
This book contains another series of episodes in the life of that fascinating investigator of crime, Mr. Reginald Fortune.
The first thing that will strike a modern reader is that Mr. Fortune and Lomas, head of the C.I.D., are apparently a gay couple.
The first story opens with Mr. Fortune lying in his hammock, “in an orchard where the apple-blossom rose out of a flood of bluebells”.
Lomas,enters “like an actor-manager to his love scene”.
He approaches the hammock, he gazes tenderly at Reggie’s still body. “Reginald, my dear fellow,” he says with affection, and pats him.
Aha, says the 21st-century reader, his gaydar pinging, and dashes off a slash fanfic.
Bailey’s audiences may not have read it that way. Fortune is recovering from blood-poisoning, and Lomas is concerned for his friend. Besides, we live in a highly sexualized society; it was more common a century ago for men to be emotionally and physically close. (See, for instance, the Art of Manliness website, on the 19th/early 20th century.)
What, though, of Lomas entering “like an actor-manager to his love scene”? And where is Mrs. Fortune? This is the fourth collection of Reggie’s adventures, and he wooed and wed the actress Joan Arden in previous tales. But there’s no trace of her in this book; nary a mention.
Mr. Fortune wonders…
These six stories see Reggie investigating murder, blackmail, theft, buried treasure, and kidnapping.
“The Missing Husband” is a minor mystery involving the landed gentry, like “The Nice Girl” or “The Young God”. Julian Brase goes missing, and gossip suggests his wife had something to do with it – particularly when his body turns up in the grounds of his estate. It’s a weak mystery; there are only two other possible candidates. Good detection, though; Reggie uses ballistics to knock holes in the police case.
“The Cat Burglar” is sleek and agile, a fast-paced tale with plenty of action. A young bride calls Reggie in when her flat is burgled – but the robber only stole worthless moonstones. The plot thickens, Reggie scents malice, and he’s nearly brained by a villain with a life-preserver. This one has a couple of Bailey’s favorite themes: the framing of an innocent man, and a SPOILER corrupt policeman.
Reggie’s bored at “The Lion Party”, where his hostess’s menagerie includes night-club celebrities, peers, profiteers, and socialites (including “a woman who would have been beautiful if her parents had given her a chin”). This is (as Mike Grost says) a companion piece to “The Snowball Burglary”: Reggie’s at a country house party when a burglary is committed – and, in both cases, the burglary isn’t what it seems. SPOILER And in both cases the supposed victim takes advantage of the burglary for their own scheme. This is a clever, sophisticated comedy, with some of Bailey’s deftest plotting.
Fortune listens to Catalani (“the new soprano”, probably named after the composer of La Wally) sing Rossini – who would have found a kindred spirit in the gourmet Reggie!
Lomas’s aunt’s ward, a Bohemian lass, and a chum have started a “Violet Farm” in the countryside – but the locals don’t like ’em. The opening shows the influence of Oscar Wilde: Reggie and Lomas are two witty young men, threatened by the visitation of an Aunt. This is underwhelming as a mystery; the villains are introduced and identified in short order – but it’s good storytelling, and I like the irony of the motive (SPOILER attempted murder to get part of the True Cross). There are echoes of “The Long Barrow”: rural setting, antiquities, and Reggie solves the case because he knows his Classics (both Latin and Greek).
“The Quiet Lady” opens lyrically, with Mr. Fortune and a friend, an elderly doctor, picnicking.
They were lying in heather on a western hill. A merry wind played with the sunshine, and the glow of cornland and pastures peacock green were displayed to the far dark shores of the sea.
Edward Wissenden falls off his terrace onto the path below – but Fortune suspects he was poisoned with one of the atropines. The detection is clever, rather in the vein of Dr. Thorndyke; Fortune uses microscopes to show the difference between animal and human blood. The plot, though, is transparent.
Reggie: “Mercy – that’s not my department. I work for justice.”
And then we come to “The Little House”, which was my first encounter with Reggie 20 years ago. By now, I almost know the plot by heart. A sweet old lady comes to Reggie when her granddaughter’s kitten goes missing. Grandkid says the girl next door took it – but the neighbors say there’s no such person. Later, the granddaughter finds a crude drawing of the kitten, drawn on packing paper with a piece of coal. And Mr. Fortune is scared.
Some critics find Bailey’s “child-in-peril” stories too sentimental. “The Little House”, though, is one of Bailey’s best, though, with plenty of action, showing Reggie’s concern for the weak, and his uncanny ability to reason from seeming trivialities to detect monstrous crimes.
Times Literary Supplement (31st March 1927):
The author adds six more chapters to his chronicle of the career of Reginald Fortune, medical expert to Scotland Yard, which already fills three volumes, and in so doing contrives to maintain that high standard of originality and excellence from which he has never allowed his creation to depart. In these six adventures, which give ample cope for Mr. Fortune’s versatility and almost uncanny flair for noticing all-important trifles, one criminal is detected through being too careful, another through being too plausible. There is an amusing example of how the female of the species can be more deadly than the male, another of the infinite pains and self-sacrifice expended by a jealous man in hopes of gratifying his almost childish craving for vengeance. In this story a girl’s life depends upon Mr. Fortune’s ability to detect that one among many splashes of blood is not of human origin. In one of these adventures there is a most surprising identification of the man who tries to murder Mr. Fortune; in the next almost every character, in spite of social eminence, qualifies in one way for another for arrest. The story of the Violet Farm turns on the interpretation of an inscription dating from the days of Cavaliers and Roundheads, while the disappearance of a Persian kitten puts Mr. Fortune on the track of a pair of entirely unsuspected miscreants in the last and perhaps the best of these new adventures.
Boston Transcript (W.E.H., 10th March 1928, 200w):
Although not too intricate, all the stories are well constructed and interesting in their tale of crime. Most of them rest on conventional, likely motives for committing murder. Yet the means by which the deduction is arrived at are both clever and entertaining. The humour, however, is extraneous.
NY World (19th May 1928, 100w):
Mr. Bailey has an unusually strong faculty for planting his initial situations and working them up to a dénouement genuinely dramatic and practically unforeseen. Besides, he knows how to write, and occasionally betrays a sense of ironic humour.
Springfield Republican (20th May 1928, 60w):
Interest is keenly sustained in each of the six stories.