The Bishop’s Crime (H.C. Bailey)

Bailey - Bishop's Crime US
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

First published: UK, Gollancz, 1940; USA, Doubleday, 1941

Blurb (US)

H.C. Bailey in The Bishop’s Crime writes the best Reggie Fortune story to date, placing Reggie against a background and with characters which give him every opportunity to distinguish himself.  The death of a tramp identified as Dirty Dick started Reggie off on a case which involved the bishop and the cathedral close of Badon.  It was the mixture of old mortar, red sandstone, and limestone which connected the tramp and the cathedral.  Reggie’s knowledge of ballads unwittingly gave him a strong piece of evidence about the light in the famous cathedral window, just as his acquaintance with Dante enabled him to recognize a discrepancy in a mediaeval document, but it was his judgement of men and women that guided him in his estimation of which crime is more wicked than which other crime.

The story mounts with dramatic, fast-moving action to a climax distinguished by its eeriness, macabre touch and complete justification of Reggie Fortune’s activities.

My review

How gifted an author was Bailey—and how shamefully neglected and forgotten!  Like Chesterton, Sayers and Mitchell, he applied the gifts of the novelist to the detective story: those of character, atmosphere, and style.  The cathedral town of Badon, where the various murders are committed and where the great Mr. Fortune moves slowly and mournfully from the slenderest of clues to find a murderer and a long-dead bishop’s treasure, is its own place, real, vivid, beautiful and powerful.  The psychological atmosphere, one of hatred, hostility and suspicion, so out of place in a bishop’s seat, has its roots in the ideological conflict between a progressive bishop and his reactionary dean, and, when ignited by the rumour of buried treasure, erupts into murder.  Gone is the religious serenity; instead, “Hell’s at work.”  And Mr. Fortune is given a problem to solve.  It is not as malevolent as the plans hatched at the Maison Montespan; not as original and powerfully imaginative as the tragedy of the Aston-Tracy feud in Durshire; nor as complex and difficult to solve as the multiple murders in the parish of Hurst, yet it is undoubtedly one of Mr. Fortune’s greatest cases, showing his ability to connect past and present and foresee the future, to read character and atmosphere, and to hang a murderer on the finest of threads.

Contemporary reviews

Observer (Maurice Richardson, 6th October 1940):


An almost alarmingly good batch this week.  We will begin with Mr. Bailey, who offers the snuggest least contemporary setting.  The Bishop’s Crime is remarkable for Mr. Fortune’s bold excursion into the Sayers–Walpole country.  His sister is married to a Wessex bishop and the neighbouring diocese is under a cloud of crime and psycho-pathological tension such as you only find in English cathedral towns.  Expert London crook is found murdered trying to steal Cathedral treasures; some of the locals have been co-operating with him.  Suspicion ranges from the bishop downwards.  Buried treasures and elaborate cryptograms with keys from Dante.  Admirable minor characters include bishop’s temperamental children and octogenarian canon, who drinks a bottle of white wine for tea.  Part of the solution may be a little disappointing, but Mr. Fortune is less maddening than usual and plays second fiddle to his setting.


New Statesman (Ralph Partridge, 19th October 1940):

Mr. Fortune, in spite of heavy meals with detailed menus and prolonged siestas, finds it hard to expand his energy to the dimensions of a full-length novel.  Most fortunately he loves children, especially little girls; so his author gives him time off for several chapters of The Bishop’s Crime to play Indians with a horrid little imp, in short skirts.  Even so, it takes three murders and much translating of mediaeval documents to keep Reggie out of coma for such a long stretch.  The plot revolves round Badon Cathedral, where the Dean and the Bishop and the Bishop’s little girl are all struggling to assert themselves.  The Close is also frequented by crooks, who tend to get murdered for the purpose of bringing Reggie to the spot.  Mr. Bailey is always readable, though often irritating.  His intense preoccupation with Reggie, effective enough in a short story, is a severe handicap in dealing with crimes on a larger scale.  The side-issues are scamped, the red herrings have no pungency, and the garden paths, up which the reader is meant to be led, have no windings.  The master villain of The Bishop’s Crime is shamefully obvious in consequence, the instant we catch sight of him (or her?) in the streets of Badon.


Times Literary Supplement (Maurice Willson Disher, 19th October 1940):

There should be a thesis written on the vogue of quotations in detective stories.  Who began it is a problem for future antiquarians to solve, but Miss Sayers seems to be the one who made it popular.  Yet here comes Mr. Bailey, ripe with the experience of close on forty years, to display the master strokes of this type of fencing.  The crisp phrases of the detective, erudite Reggie Fortune, are allusive, the Bishop’s little daughter lisps verses from gory old ballads, and an ancient cleric, dead long ago, leaves a parchment more determined to be in the swim than any criminologist of fiction now living.  Everything about this novel, from the title to its echo at the finish, is subtle.  Evidence in a dead crook’s fingernail sends Mr. Fortune to a cathedral where Bishop, dean, canon and minor canons jangle like mellow bells.  Young authors may be as erudite as Mr. Bailey, but could any of them convey so sedately the prim quiet of a close while filling the cloisters with whispers of murders past and more murders to come?  At times Mr. Bailey may break into vers libre with

The George did butter its buttered toast.

The cream was rich though the tea was coarse,

But replete therewith he got no ease,

which ends as prose, but his style generally has a gracious liveliness that comes like balm after the awkward-squad English of most specialists in crime.  At the same time he constructs a plot that twists and turns like an electric eel: it gives you shock upon shock and you cannot let go.

NOTE: And, yes, Gollancz lifted that quote to praise Michael Innes!


Manchester Guardian (E.R. Punshon, 10th December 1940, 130w):

The story is as ingenious as well told, and as exciting as his readers have come to expect from Mr. Bailey.


Books (Will Cuppy, 12th January 1941, 200w):

There is a feeling in certain quarters that this Reggie Fortune number is just about the best in its long and honourable line.  At any rate, it is topnotch H.C. Bailey stuff, with some of Reggie’s finest detection, a plot that sounds reasonable all the time, a grand antiquarian interest.


New Yorker (18th January 1941, 40w):

All fair and aboveboard, but don’t let the title mislead you.


NY Times (Isaac Anderson, 19th January 1941, 200w):

If H.C. Bailey has ever written a better Reggie Fortune story than this one, we have forgotten what it is.


Boston Transcript (Marian Wiggin, 25th January 1941, 50w):

A neat number about hidden church treasure with nary a bomb or a black-out to show it all takes place in England.  For Fortune fans only.


Sat R of Lit (25th January 1941, 50w):



Time (3rd February 1941):

Without Reggie Fortune, Hon. Sidney Lomas and Superintendent Bell of the Yard would have got nowhere with the murders and surreptitious excavations in and around Badon Cathedral.  Mr. Fortune’s feats of pure reason are spectacular as ever.