Clunk’s Claimant (H.C. Bailey)

By H.C. Bailey

First published: UK, Gollancz, 1937; USA, Doubleday, 1937, as The Twittering Bird Mystery.

Blurb (US)

Bailey - Clunk's Claimant US.JPG
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

H.C. Bailey, certain to be included among the first four or five ranking mystery story writers of our day, has written in this book another full-length novel centring about that unique character, Joshua Clunk, hypocritical, peppermint-sucking, Bible-quoting lawyer whose shrewdness and ingenuity have convinced the harried Sergeant Bell that he is in league with the devil.

Old Platt, estate agent of William Lade of the Grange, was found murdered by an alkaloid poisoning, near the eel traps. Also, strange things were happening at the Grange, in which Joshua took a personal interest for reasons of his own. He felt that in all justice he should look further into the Lade family history. He learned, among other things, about thorn apples, tricks with decanters, and bushes that had been moved. Armed with a certain tangible piece of evidence he began to take steps. Nothing illegal, of course, but nevertheless definite enough to infuriate Sergeant Bell of Scotland Yard. In fact a bitter controversy which might have been titled “Clunk vs. Scotland Yard” grew up when the second murder occurred, and almost exploded on the occurrence of the third.

Joshua was, however, a magnanimous man at heart and insisted on doing the Yard’s work for it. He pointed out the strange effect a song could have on a man and the even stranger effect a twittering bird could produce. And in the end he forced the Yard to apprehend a murderer who might otherwise have escaped. This is one of the most superb stories H.C. Bailey has ever written.

My review

An interesting novel, more interesting for Clunk than for detection. The murder of the estate agent, and the crimes that follow, are poorly solved, with too few concrete clues. The book’s strength lies in its presentation of the shady Josh Clunk, here more monstrous than ever before. Although he brings about the resolution to the mystery, and is therefore in the position of the detective, the reader suspects from the beginning that he is indirectly responsible for the various murders—yet is taken aback by Clunk’s weeping and praying following the second death. One is never sure how to take Clunk, and so, in addition to the whodunit aspect of the story, the reader is given the original and highly attractive challenge of working out what the detective is up to. Although given to singing Methodist hymns, his hypocrisy is such that “the devil wouldn’t know how to make hell till Josh went down and showed him,” for his activities are so labyrinthine and intricate that Machiavelli and Iago seem like children by comparison. The monstrous way in which he orchestrates the entire complicated and thoroughly mystifying tangle of real-estate shenanigans, false séances, French claimants, long-buried secrets, blackmail, and murder by daturine for his own profit is amazing and brilliant, more than making up for the weak detection.

Contemporary reviews

Observer (Torquemada, 12th September 1937):

H.C. Bailey did his daring quite sometime ago when he introduced to us, expecting Mr. Reginald Fortune, the sweet-sucking, hymn-crooning Josh Clunk.  It is, I think, a great tribute to the way in which Josh has been built up into a breathing and fascinating human contradiction that his creator also dares, in his latest Clunk, Clunk’s Claimant, actually to bring Reggie on for a tantalising half page.  How very real must not the little shyster lawyer have become when we do not find ourselves howling for our best-loved of all detectives to stay and clear things up.  And they need a lot of clearing.  Three fresh murders, one attempted murder, the discovery of two ancient murders, and the befogging and slight brutalisation of our old friend Superintendent Bell: all these are required before everything works out exactly to Clunk’s need, and he is free once more to chirrup to his stuffed canaries and to engage on some new arachnidan ploy.  This small religious twister remains an unresolved character to us, and also, I suspect, to Mr. Bailey and to himself.  The two youngsters, Henri and Peggy, are impeccably presented, but just for a minute or so the latter’s Irish idiom overflows into the mouths of two other and most un-Hibernian characters.


Times Literary Supplement (Caldwell Harpur, 2nd October 1937):

Mr. Clunk is a pious and philanthropic lawyer.  Crimes occur; no one can prove he instigated them; but he always profits.

The Lade estate, a farm in 1830, covered several streets of London by 1930, and old Lade was a limpet who would not develop or sell.  So a claimant appeared, with Clunk as lawyer.  The claimant, Henri, a lively French youth, was said to be the son of Lade’s nephew and co-heir, killed in the War.  Henri was not nearly as interested in the matter as the maternal aunt who came over with him, or Captain Okes, his father’s old friend.  Platt, the estate agent, knew things, and someone who wished them unknown gave a fatal dose of daturin to Platt.  Someone gave daturin to Henri, too, but he did not die.  Okes died, again of daturin.  Old Lade killed himself and left a confession of three murders, but at least one was a lie.  Omitting police, Henri is the only honest person in the book, with the partial exception of Morgan, the girl whom Merlin, the Irish entertainer, pretends to hypnotise.  Sometimes her trance is real, to the annoyance of Merlin and the Lades.


Books (Will Cuppy, 17th October 1937, 200w):

This struck us as an unusual Bailey volume, largely because of the author’s new writing style—a clipped, rather jerky vehicle in spots.  As H.C. Bailey is always required reading, you can make up your mind about that.


NY Times (Isaac Anderson, 24th October 1937, 250w):

The mystery is solved in a manner that is not particularly exciting or convincing.  But Joshua Clunk makes out very well indeed, even if he is a slimy old hypocrite.


Sat R of Lit (30th October 1937, 40w):

Diabolical cleverness of Clunk, plus excellent surrounding cast, mysterious venom, and spiritualistic dabblings, makes superlatively potent brew.