The Sullen Sky Mystery (H.C. Bailey)

  • By H.C. Bailey
  • First published: UK: Gollancz, 1935; USA: Doubleday, 1935

My review

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Using small-town politics and business deals, real estate fraud, and police corruption as his ingredients, Bailey has written a particularly clever story, with a very complex and ambiguous situation, in which nothing is as it seems to be, not even at the end. This is, however, not too complex for Bailey’s unique detective, the villainous Joshua Clunk, a fascinating and likeable hypocrite, whose principal vices are sweets and hymns—indeed, one character remarks that he “looks like a pious old deacon, but the gall of him, and his tricks and his bounce!”—and who makes a gloriously funny mockery of a magistrate’s court. His detection is fine, as evident in the scene on the marsh where he uses tyre tracks to find both a missing girl (the scene in which she is lost on the marsh and pursued by the murderer is very skilfully done—tense without any H.I.B.K.) and a body. All of the clues are provided in this highly competent detective story, but Bailey’s misdirection, his use of bluff, double bluff, triple and even quadruple bluff, ensure that the reader will be stunned at the end, in what is quite simply the best use of the gimmick involved.


1935 Doubleday

This, H.C. Bailey’s first full-length novel since The Red Castle Mystery, again features Joshua Clunk, London’s most astute criminal lawyer.  Mr. Clunk is one of the most amazing characters in all mystery fiction.  Whether he will die in bed, in jail, or even less agreeably, is held an open question in professional circles.  Perhaps he is best characterized by the remark of his old enemy, Superintendent Bell: “I don’t mind Clunk’s always having five aces up his sleeve, but I do object to his telling me the Almighty put ’em there.”

When Isaac Terry first retained Mr. Clunk’s services the little rotund lawyer thought it a trifling case, and turned it over to an assistant.  Later, when Alderman Layton was found stabbed to death on a beach near Waldon, Clunk decided he had been wrong, and took over the handling of the case in his own unorthodox fashion.  With the occurrence of two other violent deaths, things looked black indeed for Isaac Terry, but Clunk blithely ignored the case being built up against his client, and the antagonism of the police.  He continued cheerfully to follow his own strange course of action.

In the end, of course, he “broke” the case; broke it solely with the aid of a momentary gleam of sunshine that one bleak afternoon broke through a sullen, overcast sky.  In his exuberance he provided the police with so many murderers that they were completely befuddled, and only Clunk, as he drove happily back to London, knew the truth.

This is the best book about the inimitable Joshua Clunk that Mr. Bailey has yet given, and is in fact one of the finest mystery stories that the Crime Club has ever had the pleasure of publishing.

Contemporary reviews

Observer (Torquemada, 6th October 1935): The Sullen Sky Mystery is emphatically the best tale yet told of Mr. Clunk; indeed, I think the time has come when we must cease to consider this little hymn-chirruping and high-tea-ingesting lawyer as a mere parergon of the creator of Reggie Fortune.  When Reggie is about, Mr. Bailey’s treatment of the police is mellow; when Josh Clunk is briefed for the defence, it is emphatically and pleasantly not so.  All was clear to me on page 290, exactly, I should imagine, where the author intended it to be; though I must say that, remembering, like a good Fortunate, “The Cat Burglar”, I had harboured a suspicion for some time on general principles.  It is perhaps superfluous to state that The Sullen Sky Mystery is a very good mystery; but the supreme mystery, for some of us, is what Mr. Clunk really thinks of himself and his chances of heavenly reward.

New Statesman & Nation (Ralph Partridge, 12th October 1935): Can it be that erstwhile admirers of Mr. Fortune are at last tiring of his “My-dear-chap,-oh!-my-dear-chap” approach to the problems his creator, Mr. H.C. Bailey, concocts for him?  Such mass conversion to my personal distaste seems unlikely.  Nevertheless, there is no Mr. Fortune in The Sullen Sky Mystery, only a Mr. Clunk, a knowledgeable but cryptic old solicitor, whose verbal patter—perhaps owing to unfamiliarity—is rather less offensive.  It is a problem in counterpoint rather than harmony that Mr. Clunk elucidates.  The murder on a bathing beach of town councillor Layton under unpromising weather conditions is but a prelude to the cross-rhythms of municipal intrigue and jobbery.  With a detective who discerns as much and reveals as little as Mr. Clunk, we cannot expect to catch the drift of his infallible reasoning as we go along, but must be content to applaud the dominant trait in his character, unswerving loyalty to the interests of a client.

Times Literary Supplement (17th October 1935): Mr. Bailey has sent Mr. Fortune on holiday.  We hope it will be a long one, for, to tell the truth, we were getting a little tired of him.  Instead, Mr. Bailey concentrates on that previously minor character, Joshua Clunk, a “snide” solicitor if there ever was one.  Clunk is odious, unctuous—he sings Salvationist hymns and sucks sweets—artful, ingenious, slimy, and a great deal more; but he is irresistible and horribly astute.  Called in to defend an old “lag” from a charge of murdering a disreputable alderman, Clunk manages to set the police against each other.  His impertinence is amazing but justified because he knows far too much about the very involved situation which Mr. Bailey has created.  The complications of the plot are, indeed, a trifle overdone; there are too many incidental alarms and excursions.  Not too many, though, for Clunk, who leads the local police and Scotland Yard up the garden path to a triumphant and grossly unprofessional conclusion.

Books (Will Cuppy, 13th October 1935, 300w): Any Bailey book, of course, is a necessity for the better fan, so act accordingly.

Sat R of Lit (19th October 1935, 40w): Brilliant dialogue, breathless action, grand characterisations, labyrinthine puzzle, amazing ending—that’s all!

NY Times (Kay Irvin, 20th October 1935, 420w): The Sullen Sky Mystery is surprising in more senses than one: its dénouement is a surprise, and its method is a surprise, too.  In comparison with the author’s short stories it suffers by being too complicated, and at the same time not sympathetic enough.  But it’s a good yarn nevertheless.

Spectator (Nicholas Blake, 1st November 1935, 120w): Mr. Bailey’s strong point is dialogue, and he excels himself at it in this book.