The Little Captain (H.C. Bailey)

By H.C. Bailey

First published: UK, Gollancz, 1941; US, Doubleday, 1941, as Orphan Ann

US blurb

Bailey - Little Captain US
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

What connection can there be between a girl in a quiet country orphanage, and a body lying among the bluebells of a little wood?

Or between that girl and a man under suspicion of selling Admiralty secrets? And another body plunging bloodily into midnight waters?

And a refugee doctor whose secretary disappeared into thin air? And Inspector Hubbard, whose specialty was the darkest peccadilloes of the female sex? And a rising tide of intrigue and violence that washed about the mysterious figure of Orphan Ann—until Joshua Clunk cut through the whole murderous pattern with a ruthless efficiency that spared no one in his path.

To readers not yet acquainted with Mr. Clunk it should be explained that he is one of the greatest, if not the most scrupulous, of criminal lawyers, and that his methods of fathoming a crime and trapping the criminal are uniquely his own.  One of his few weaknesses is children, and it was because of this that he listened one day in his office to the request of one Mrs. Beebe, who wished him to investigate Sister Martha’s home for orphan girls, an institution to which (she said) she was thinking of contributing money.  Mr. Clunk suspected that blackmail might be somewhere in her mind, but because children were concerned he agreed to go into the matter.

That unpromising inquiry was the beginning of the case of Orphan Ann, the most complex, the most thrilling, and the most satisfying, of Joshua Clunk’s entire career.

My review

The Little Captain (or, in America, Orphan Ann) boasts one of Bailey’s more tangled plots, with plenty of incident and suspense as Josh Clunk, self-styled hand of God, investigates the murder of Mollie Marn, and attempts to defend Captain Davy, outside whose cottage Marn’s corpse was placed, from charges of murder and treason. A sinister orphanage run by a white slaver also looms large in the plot. Let the reader who, like Barzun and Taylor, feels that Bailey occasionally lets his love of and for mistreated children-in-peril plunge the story into bathos be reassured that this theme does not dominate.

Clunk, for once, works with the police rather than against them (although his methods of securing justice, including allowing a murder and driving a woman to suicide, are highly dubious).

As the story progresses, and is lost in “an infernal fog of crimes,” the tension builds, as exciting event follows exciting event. Unfortunately, the fiend is arrested eighty pages or so from the end, and the guilt is shared between the members of a conspiracy, so the reader’s anger is diffused. Result: a feeling of anti-climax, and a general muddle. This is particularly disappointing, as there are plenty of good clues in the book, and the first half is one of the most detection-filled Bailey novels.

Contemporary reviews

Observer (Maurice Richardson, 11th May 1941):

Second string detectives are apt to be disappointing, but, personally, I prefer Mr. Bailey’s sanctimonious Chunk [sic] to the urbane Fortune.  In The Little Captain, an ingenious mixture of White Slavery, Baby Farming, and Fifth Column work in high places, Chunk [sic] scores heavily and contributes towards some violent action.  Good suspense and not too obscure.


Times Literary Supplement (Maurice Willson Disher, 17th May 1941):


Black as things may look for him, there is no suspecting the little captain who is the hero of Mr. Bailey’s new story.  A coroner wants to see him tried for murder and an admiral is equally sure of his guilt as a traitor, but Mr. Clunk is not deceived.  This godly solicitor, while smacking his lips over loaf sugar and pious thoughts, makes his mission in life a crusade on behalf of virtue.  He has a nose for evil-doing.  One distant sniff at a seemly orphanage and he is hot on the scent of unspeakable horrors in international crime.  How he divines the sinister menace of that orphanage over the little captain’s fate is not easily understood unless it is assumed that there can be a nose of faith with supernatural sensitiveness.  Mr. Clunk is a grand, mellow character, though Mr. Bailey carries his mealiness of mouth a little too far; when Mr. Clunk starts his hymn-singing after driving a woman (no matter how wicked) to suicide, a squeamish stomach may feel a trifle sick.  Still, much can be forgiven an author with such youthful gusto.


Times Literary Supplement (Maurice Willson Disher, 6th September 1941):

In recent crime fiction Mr. H.C. Bailey’s The Little Captain stays freshest in mind.  Boisterous zest flavours not only struggles and pursuits but also peaceful moments when the sanctimonious solicitor, who acts as sleuth, sits down to pamper his horrible taste for food.


New Statesman (Ralph Partridge, 24th May 1941):

Mr. Bailey does not pick out the hardest rows to hoe, but I confess I am slightly shocked to find The Little Captain is just a war thriller, with poor old Clunk dragged in to give it countenance.  Admittedly secrets are being transmitted to Germany from the heart of Mayfair.  Surely a job for Reggie Fortune?  No, Reggie is saved for higher things, such as detection: Clunk must do the dirty work of spy-hunting.  As a war thriller the book is no better than it should be, as if Mr. Bailey’s heart was not quite in his work.


Manchester Guardian (E.R. Punshon, 1st July 1941):

Since this is war-time, secret service and Nazi spies must to the fore.  Without them, no tale complete.  In The Little Captain, Mr. H.C. Bailey gives an ingenious mixture of private crime and public treachery, his excellent writing and his gift for dialogue showing themselves at their best.  We have to lament the absence of Mr. Fortune, but in compensation are given full measure of the no less admirable Mr. Clunk.


Books (Will Cuppy, 10th August 1941, 150w):

The story is smooth as silk, with its full quota of modish and other people, curious London slang, slightly mannered prose and all else you look for in this author’s invariably pleasing output, including a whiz of a plot.


NY Times (Isaac Anderson, 17th August 1941, 190w):

Clunk is not a person one would care to meet, but he is amusing in his own peculiar way.  This is by far the best of Mr. Bailey’s stories about the wily old lawyer.


New Yorker (23rd August 1941, 50w):

Fine reading, with no loopholes.


Sat R of Lit (23rd August 1941, 40w):

Ever-helpful Clunk out-smarts angry Scotland Yarders in solving mystery of orphanage, murder, and treacherous intrigue in navy.  Hard to beat.