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)|
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 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.
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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.