Friday, May 1, 2015

FFB: A Clue for Mr. Fortune - H. C. Bailey

Reggie Fortune reminds me so much of a British version of Philo Vance.  They both have an eccentric way of speaking, they both have quaint expressions ("Oh, my aunt!" and Oh, my hat!") they resort to when exasperated, they both think they're better than the police at solving crimes, and they both have a wealth of esoteric information at their fingertips with which to astound their policemen cohorts.  But even with Reggie's irritating speech habits -- sounding like a human telegram with staccato terseness often absent of verbs and articles -- I found him to be a lot more engaging and often a delightful detective compared to Vance.  He clearly belongs to the good old days when murderers committed puzzling crimes and inadvertently left behind equally puzzling traces that provide clues to only one as knowledgeable and observant as Reggie Fortune.  Even more remarkable is that H.C. Bailey seemed to have been way ahead of his time in presenting a physician turned detective whose skills in forensic medicine help uncover crucial evidence when death looks suspiciously like foul play.

The six novellas -- its hard to classify a forty to fifty page tale as a short story -- that make up the adventures in sleuthing in A Clue for Mr. Fortune (1936) run the gamut from theft to missing persons to fiendishly disguised murders.  Four of the six are top notch examples of the best of a Golden Age detective story while the other two left me wanting.  So lets get those two sticklers out of the way before we move onto the prizewinners in this book.

Though "The Hole in the Parchment" has both an exotic setting (Firenze and the surrounding Florentine countryside in Italy) and unusual background (medieval manuscript collecting)  it is not really a detective story.  Reggie is on vacation in Italy with his wife Joan and helps out the police in a case of suspected thievery and forgery.  The story is more of an action adventure with the bulk of the tale devoted to a lengthy car chase interrupted by an intrusive motorcyclist and an unexpected automotive breakdown in the hills.  There is a lot of talk about sports car design since the main character is involved in the automobile industry but that didn't interest me at all.  And the final twist related to the story's title was less of a surprise eliciting more of a "So what?"reaction from me.  Knowing that parchment is not really paper may tip off the reader to that twist, but it's all so inconsequential.  No murder, by the way.

I didn't even finish "The Wistful Goddess" because Reggie and his wife (who speaks almost exactly like him for some bizarre reason) are talking with one of those British twits who ends nearly all of his sentences with "Eh, what?" way too often and who is bemoaning his recently lost "love-at-first-sight" girlfriend. I found nothing in the first three pages interesting at all. The dialogue was wretched and I just skipped it altogether.

There. That's done. Now for the good tales and the very good reasons you ought to track down a copy of this elusive book.

US paperback edition (Pony Books, 1946)
The collection starts off with a gimmick that will recur throughout the book -- an apparent suicide that turns out to be murder.  The first paragraph in "The Torn Stocking" indicates that this is apparently one of Reggie's first cases as a police consultant and pairs him up with frequent collaborator Inspector Lomas.  A 16 year old girl accused of shoplifting is thought to have killed herself by sticking her head in a gas oven. It is the title clue that tips off Reggie that the girl was killed elsewhere and her body moved to where it was found in the kitchen. Reggie takes this along with such archetypical Golden Age clues as a lumpy doll, some sawdust in the bedroom and a missing cat to uncover a murder involving stolen jewels and a blackmail scheme.

In "The Swimming Pool" we get an interesting confession from Reggie when he claims to have no imagination. What he really means is that he is so focused on the facts and applying his findings of the evidence overlooked by the unobservant police that he is often unable to foretell possible complications in the police investigation.  He seems to be a man of medicine first, a scientist and a rigid logician.  But in the end it turns out to be self-deprecating remark and a case of selling himself short.

This case involves an incorrectly assumed death by natural causes that is actually a murder by morphine poisoning. A nurse who treated the victim has gone missing and the search is on to locate her so that she can be questioned about his treatment.  But when a headless corpse of a woman turns up in a trunk Reggie and the police think that the murderer got to the nurse first. Reggie shows off his extensive knowledge of botany and local flora (not for the first time) when he remarks on some St. John's wort found on the body, a plant isolated to a specific region, indicating once again that the corpse was killed elsewhere than where it was found. We also get an indication of Reggie's superiority when he remarks in passing towards the end of the story: "Clever female. Rather underratin' the male intelligence. As they do." I love a little retro male chauvinism in my vintage detective fiction, don't you?

Reggie Fortune, looking rather androgynous,
in this illustration by Frederick Dorr Steele
"The Dead Leaves" is another instance of botany playing a big part in the solution of the crime.  A case of an unidentified woman's body who once again appeared to have killed herself leads to another similar death by misadventure. Both of course will turn out to be cleverly executed murders.  The discovery of some leaves and branches of bog myrtle and arctic willow prove to be the killer's undoing.  Mountaineering and outdoor sports also figure prominently in this excellent story. We meet Jenks, Reggie's lab assistant who I believe shows up in numerous other stories, in a brief scene at the start that is resonant of the recent crop of forensic crime TV shows.  One of Bailey's landmark contributions to detective fiction is his concentration on forensic evidence like insects, plants and organic matter found on the crime victims bodies and blood evidence overlooked at the scene of the crime.

The highlight for me, however, is "The Holy Well". Here is a perfect example of a detective novel in miniature. From the puzzling murder to the odd clues to the atmospheric setting and unconventional  characters it hits all the bells and whistles of the best of detective fiction of this era. Reggie eventually takes center stage as a true detective though he starts off in his regular role as police consultant. From the opening sentence "the process of discovering the truth was started in the Sunday paper" that leads to the uncovering of "crepuscular tragedy of the mystery of the agonies of womanhood" to the final revelation the story is exciting, engaging and unusual. Jonathan Prout is strangled and dumped in the well of St. Siran in the Cornish moors.  Lovelorn girls regularly visit the well tossing pins and coins into its depths wishing for happiness and romance but there are those who shun it as a cursed object.  The mention of a death's head moth found in the water is at first dismissed as yet another example of the local superstitious beliefs attached to the well, but Reggie sees it as vital evidence. The moth coupled with the mention of a sticky substance found on the corpse's clothing sets Reggie off on a complex murder investigation that will uncover family secrets, impersonation and a wicked plan to defraud a family fortune.  The detection in this story is superior compared to the rest with fine examples of fair play clues laid out with subtlety and inventiveness not on display in the other five stories.

Though A Clue for Mr Fortune is somewhat scarce you might be lucky to find the paperback edition I own.  If unable to locate this particular volume the best of the stories, including "The Holy Well", can be found is an easily obtained omnibus of Reggie Fortune stories published i under the title Meet Mr. Fortune.  That book also includes the full length novel The Bishop's Crime as well as a number of other excellent stories originally published in other volumes of Mr. Fortune's detective exploits.

It's a shame that Reggie Fortune has fallen into obscurity.  His eccentric speech and quaint mannerisms may have prevented him from lasting fame in the pantheon of great fictional detectives, yet he very much deserves to be there.  And he very much deserves to be read by contemporary audiences.

*  *  *

Reading Challenge update.  This is my late entry for Rich Westwood's "1936 Book" challenge for the month of April and also the short story entry for the Golden Age bingo card challenge sponsored by Bev at My Reader's Block.

17 comments:

  1. This is one of those characters that I have only ever read about, though I definitely have some of the stories in anthologies (though can I remember which, off hand? Nope ...). I hope this is a bit easier to find than it sounds, really interested now (and I say that as a Vance fan of course) - thansk John - great review.

    ReplyDelete
  2. A Clue For Mr. Fortune is available with me . However I read it so long back that I have forgotten the stories. Let me reread it before giving my comments.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I also have Mr. Fortune Objects which is also a collection of 6 novellas.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Rue Morgue Press has reprinted two of the fortune titles: Black Land, White Land and Shadow on the Wall. www.ruemorguepress.com

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Both of those are novels. This post discusses short stories and novellas which tend to be the better representations of Reggie Fortune and his detective skills. And there are many more stories with Reggie Fortune than there are novels.

      Delete
  5. Sounds interesting. Ever the optimist, I checked Project Gutenberg but all they have is one of his historical novels, which looks completely dire -- dialogue full of forsoothery, etc. I'll have to look out for that omnibus you mention.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. After I posted this I checked and there were over 50 copies of Meet Mr. Fortune for sale form various online dealers. Cheapest was $8. There are about 10 or so copies of A Clue for Mr. Fortune offered, both paperback and hardcover but all are well above $10. Oddly, copies of the paperback Pony Book edition start at $13 when I would've expected it to be considerably less. I guess it because that particular publisher released only 22 books before they went out of business they're all collector's items.

      Delete
  6. Bailey died in 1961 so he is out of copyright here in Canada. I have posted a text file of the booik to my public Dropbox. The link is below.

    https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/650522/BAILEY%2C%20HC%20-%20Clue%20for%20Mr%20Fortune%20%281936%29.txt

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for doing that, Ron. Hope others will be able to access it now.

      Delete
    2. Got it, John. I saw Ron's link but it didn't register. Still, I'll be looking for the elusive hard copy.

      Delete
  7. John, the author's name sounds familiar. I'll see if I can actually dig up a copy from my secondhand book haunts. I'd like to read this collection if I find it.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You can always cut and paste the link in Ron's comment. I just did and got the whole book at once! I'm sure you can save it to your hard drive that way.

      Delete
  8. I have reread both A Clue For Mr. Fortune and Mr. Fortune Objects. I regard the stories in Mr. Fortune Objects as generally much better.
    In A clue for Mr. Fortune, I rate only one story The Holy Well as Excellent, whereas in Mr. Fortune Objects, I rate 3 stories as Excellent: The Broken Toad, The Yellow Slugs and The Long Dinner.
    Hence if you enjoyed A Clue For Mr. Fortune, I am sure you'll enjoy Mr. Fortune Objects.

    ReplyDelete
  9. I'm fairly new to dropbox but I have placed a number of Bailey's Mr Fortune stories in my box and I hope people canaccess them via this link:

    https://www.dropbox.com/sh/ugrabtvcayrvc2s/AAAJFKBEyZsZj50wmLWF4oela?dl=0

    ReplyDelete
  10. John, thanks for this. I've read only two Fortune short stories "The Little House" and "The Hermit Crab" (in Vol 1 of The World's Best 100 Detective Stories by Eugene Thwing, ed), but they were delightful. I look forward to reading more.

    ReplyDelete
  11. John, I agree with you about Reggie's irritatin', infuriatin' speech oddities (such as suppressing those "g"s). I also agree that he's a very interesting character - over at Classic Mysteries, I just posted a review of Bailey's first collection of stories in book form, "Call Mr. Fortune," which is definitely great fun - and available as a Kindle e-book, too.

    ReplyDelete
  12. A second attempt to share H C Bailey books via dropbox:

    https://www.dropbox.com/sh/h0jfa9phui7ex8g/AAD_xkLb87uy8fod_HWa5Udra?dl=0

    ReplyDelete