By H.C. Bailey
First published: UK, Macdonald, 1948; USA, Doubleday, as Save a Rope
Water, water everywhere at Gilthwaite Tarn, but should it be drunk by the Borough of Ribbarn or used to provide electric power for the County of Ribland? Or should it just stay put in Gilthwaite Tarn? The issue hardly seemed one likely to be settled by any means more violent than a few stormy committee meetings, but from the moment that Bill Butler, ex-officer convalescing at Gilthwaite, found a headless skeleton on the Fells above that disputed sheet of water, local affairs took on a sterner aspect. Wisely, the police summoned Mr. Reginald Fortune to the spot, and the incomparable Reggie proceeded to give one of his most teasing and ingenious expositions of the art of detection and, in a manner of speaking, the saving of rope.
Bloody awful, and almost unreadable. The book has all the style of a telegram, all the character of shorthand notes, without the lyrical grace of Black Land, White Land or the wit and sophistication of Shadow on the Wall. There is nothing in the prose to interest the reader, nothing to make him want to keep reading; instead it passes under his eye without making any impact so that he keeps returning to the top of the page to discover which characters are present and where the story is supposed to be taking place. Halfway through, one simply stops taking any of it in. Matters are not improved by Bailey’s stylistic eccentricities. Not an adverb goes untortured (“pushful”, leaving “-ly” out), not a phrase unmaimed. One shudders to think what rage it would have roused in Sayers (who was known, like the Mikado of Japan, to call for “something lingering with boiling oil in it”!).
Characterisation is almost entirely absent. None of the characters have a distinct identity – they all blur into one embodiment of the author’s voice. All the characters speak like Reggie Fortune (although there were premonitions of this in the form of Commander Cloudesley in The Great Game) and, as in Ivy Compton-Burnett or 1980s Gladys Mitchell, whole pages go by without Bailey stating who the participants in the conversation are. One should also note the married couple and their sister who try to speak like Beatrice and Benedick in a circumlocutional mixture of allusions and puns which recalls and reads as smoothly as James Joyce. “This is all clever silliness,” one of the characters perceptively remarks, “and there’s nothing more boring.”
There is, actually – the plot of the book. Plot? What plot? Not nice. No. Quite so. However. Study to improve. A headless skeleton is found on the hillside in the first chapter – and nothing happens for 200 pages until the book ends, with the reader no wiser about the murderer’s motive. Even the bursting of the dam and the flooding of the village can’t be made interesting – we can’t picture anything because Bailey gives us no visual hooks, none of those descriptions of light and landscape which abounded in his short stories and 1930s novels (the Alps in Shadow, Durshire in Black Land, the marshes of The Sullen Sky Mystery). While the reader desperately wants something to happen (a nice murder or two), Reggie dithers and indulges in idle conjecture. Unfortunately the vice is contagious – the other characters all wander about analysing every conversation for signs of possible guilt and build airy-fairy hypotheses without the slightest skerrick of evidence. Can this absence of plot, detection and clues really be from the author of Shadow on the Wall and The Sullen Sky Mystery?
“All the incidents are utterly obscure.” “Obscurity irritatin’ not utter.”
Observer (Maurice Richardson, 24th October 1948):
Among the whodunits there is H.C. Bailey’s Saving a Rope, in which Mr. Fortune copes with Lake District murders that centre round a move to turn a village into a reservoir.
New Statesman (Ralph Partridge, 15th January 1949):
The scene of Saving a Rope is the Lake District, where a headless skeleton is found on the fells; and Reggie Fortune, by dint of puffing up and down dale and clipping his sentences worse than ever, cajoles some refractory evidence to exude a solution. Accompanying Reggie is one of the most unrewarding experiences in detection. He makes the same noise whatever he is doing; coming, or going, or simply at a standstill. And a restless, popping noise it is, like that of an antiquated car missing on one or two cylinders.
New Yorker (31st July 1948, 100w):
Slim stuff, even for rabid Fortune admirers.
Sat R of Lit (14th August 1948, 40w0:
High class Bailey.
NY Times (Isaac Anderson, 15th August 1948, 140w):
A curious feature of this book is that many of the characters in it have acquired the cryptic conversational style to which Reggie has long been addicted. Surely, one Reggie Fortune at a time should be enough for anybody.