Shadow on the Wall (H.C. Bailey)

By H.C. Bailey

First published: UK, Gollancz, 1934; USA, Doubleday, 1934

Blurb (US)

Bailey - Shadow on the Wall.JPG
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

This is the first full-length novel about Mr. Reginald Fortune, special advisor to Scotland Yard.

It tells the story of his longest, most absorbing, most dangerous case – the affair that began with the suicide of a Mrs. Poyntz, and a memorable garden-party at Buckingham Palace; whose clues were a shadow flickering briefly on a wall, a girl who died from morphia tablets that were not morphia; a little man in Switzerland who made a perfume labelled Le Matin d’un Faune; a dead monkey.  Two women, one man were dead also before the outlines of the case cleared, and Reggie Fortune could fling the whole force of his courage and ingenuity against a murderer who could be charming at garden parties, while careers were destroyed, the happiness of innocent people crushed, and cold-blooded murder removed the men and women who were in the way.

Reggie Fortune, called by critics the logical successor to Sherlock Holmes, reaches the greatest heights of his career in these dark and gleaming pages.  Shadow on the Wall is one of the detective story classics of our day.

My review

‘We’re only seeing shadows. But there’s hell at work.’

Absolutely top-notch, both as a detective story and as a novel. It is an exposé of society: fashion, the theatre, drugs, gossip, politics, hypocrisy, “vice, envy, hatred and malice”; and of the warped and vengeful people who represent different facets and sins of a crooked society, concerned with a “persistent effort to destroy reputation; recurring use of man’s relations with women; handling of dope; thread of sheer cruelty”. As well as being a well-written novel, it is also a first-class detective story: the murders (and there are plenty of them) are ingeniously committed and equally ingeniously solved by Mr. Fortune, who is in fine form. Bailey’s misdirection and use of red herrings is first-class: the reader is given the clues, both physical and psychological, on nearly every page (indeed, this has to be one of the most clue-filled detective stories I have ever read), yet he fails to reach the right solution. Everything a detective story should be.

Contemporary reviews

Sunday Times (Dorothy L. Sayers, 6th May 1934):

None of this week’s corpses, however, is found in a very remarkable spot.  Mr. Reginald Fortune, who now appears for the first time in a full-novel-length adventure, encounters several of them, but the deaths are all cunningly arranged to suggest suicide, accident, or natural causes, and so take place in more or less commonplace surroundings.  The first two or three might, indeed, have defied suspicion by their calculated ordinariness, if only Mr. Fortune had not had so quick an ear for sinister undertones in garden-party chat, so quick an eye for the shape of a Shadow on the Wall.

As the investigation proceeds, the criminals become more flustered, the murders more incautiously planned, and the action moves ever more swiftly to a dramatic conclusion.

In the early chapters the characters crowd together rather confusingly, and the clues are conveyed in hints so delicate that it is hard to pick them up.  Later, the pattern defines itself more clearly, though I feel that the psychology of the murderers is not quite sufficiently indicated for perfect fairness to the reader.  With Mr. Bailey, the mental disease which issues in the lust of cruelty for its own sake is always the mainspring of criminal action (“Anything to give pain,” as the gentleman says in The Wrong Box), and thus the character of the criminal is an essential clue, which ought not to be left so shadowy and obscure.

Mr. Fortune moans and mumbles even more than usual over this perverse series of villainies, and, on the whole, his eccentricities of manner seem best suited to short-story form, but his swiftness and sureness of psychological deduction carry him triumphantly through the intricacies of the longer plot, and keep the interest well sustained.


Times Literary Supplement (24th May 1934):

Four times in his career hitherto has Mr. Fortune’s life been endangered—by a foreign Prince with a cup of poisoned tea; by a revengeful woman with arsenic, in a deserted cottage; by a detected rogue in a Swiss mountain; and by a Belgian bravo with sandbags.  On this occasion a bullet from a Luger pistol just misses him after Lady Rosnay’s capuchin monkey had fallen a victim to a murderous attempt intended for its mistress.  Mr. Fortune’s intuition leads him to believe that someone inspired by a sadistic delight in cruelty is behind the remarkable series of events which, he is convinced, all form part of the hydra-headed difficulty around him.  Yet some of these episodes are not, so far as can be seen, the result of crimes.  There are two suicides, sad enough—and one might have been an accident.  Then there was the overfed scandalmonger who fell, or might have been pushed, out of a window of the house where the shadow appeared on the wall just after Lady Rosnay had been knocked down and robbed of her tiara.  She, however, could do nothing about it because she did not wish people to learn that she had been wearing paste at the much-advertised fancy dress ball.  Then there was the apparent suicide of the actress.  It is one of Mr. Fortune’s cleverest pieces of work to have shown that she was murdered in a particularly ingenious way, and thereafter the enemy is able to score only two murders out of six attempts, as Mr. Fortune is just in time—almost a matter of seconds—to save a honeymoon couple from the repulsive fate prepared for them by their unsuspected enemy.  Mr. Bailey has woven a pretty story out of his variegated strands of love and desire, jealousy, politics, greed, malignant spite and illicit drug traffic.


Observer (H.C. O’Neill, 8th July 1934):


There are certain moods in which Mr. Fortune seems the most engaging detective of fiction.  There is never a mood in which he does not richly satisfy the mind that takes pleasure in this type of novel.  But hitherto his incursions into crime have been in the nature of short, swift, swoops upon the criminal.  In Shadow on the Wall he makes his first appearance in a full-length novel, and, for his admirers, it is sufficient to say that though now happily married, he is the same as ever, luxurious when occasion offers, but tireless at need, subtle, tenacious, amusing, flippant, cruel, and utterly ruthless.  For those who have not made his acquaintance it can be said that he belongs to the intuitional type of detective, very much of Dr. Thorndyke’s equipment worn more urbanely, with a perfect foil in Superintendent Bell, and a glittering superior in Lomas.  He appears to be presented with a series of unconnected events.  He scents a continuity; and in a study full of action and full also of reasoning and inspired guess work, he unmasks as unlovely a character as criminal fiction knows.  And Mr. Bailey writes.  It is unusual, and some would say unnecessary, in the detective novel.  But it adds for the discriminating the last appeal in a most attractive story.


Sat R of Lit (9th June 1934, 40w):

First Mr. Fortune novel has same quality as famous stories; absorbing process of innuendo, surprise, and psychology.


Books (Will Cuppy, 10th June 1934, 320w):

Mr. Bailey’s management of a flock of casualties is nothing less than brilliant, thanks to Reggie’s deductive genius, and he has gone to pains to keep the reader hep to the sleuthing processes every minute.


NY Times (Isaac Anderson, 17th June 1934, 220w):

Fortune is an entertaining chap, but this particular story is not so plausible as some of the shorter ones in which he has figured.