H. C. Bailey Essay - Critical Essays


The critics who argue that H. C. Bailey’s detective fiction is dated, dull, and full of class prejudice are mistaken. Though only nineteen years younger than Arthur Conan Doyle, Bailey was distinctly a man of the twentieth century. His plots exhibit a perceptive candor about sexual motives and human aberrations. There is none of the snobbery that holds that ancestry, education, or profession guarantee superiority. There is also no “land of hope and glory” patriotism. If liberal churchmen and civil servants are often narrow-minded and self-important in Bailey’s work, so too are retired army officers and landed gentlemen. Fortune avoids the pomp and ceremony of upper-class institutions whenever he can; he is kind to his brother-in-law the bishop, but he is not impressed by him. Fortune favors his eating clubs, not on the basis of their membership but for the quality of their muffins. Mr. Clunk is of humble origins and chiefly serves the poor; Bailey intends that the reader think Clunk a humbug for his pious cant, his Gospel Hall work, and his profitable investments, but case after case finds him lavish in good works. Clunk is the nemesis of pretentious charitable institutions that exploit the poor and helpless.

Honour Among Thieves

Bailey has a rare gift for portraying sympathetically the poor and neglected of society. “The Brown Paper” (in Mr. Fortune Here, 1940) explores the friendship of two working-class Londoners: Ann Stubbs, an orphan in her early teens, and Jim Hay, a robust deliveryman a few years older. Honour Among Thieves (1947) shows, among many other things, the growth of trust and affection between Alf Buck, who has fled his criminal past to work a truck farm, and Louisa Connell, who has escaped from reform school. There is the further fine touch of showing this relationship develop through the eyes of Alf’s younger brother, who resents Lou as a ruinous intrusion and fails to understand his brother’s growing interest in her. Clunk, without their knowledge, protects all of them both from Alf and Lou’s past criminal associates and from the police.

The Veron Mystery

Yet Bailey does not represent moral character as depending on social class; if spoiled and selfish types are often found among the prosperous and secure, he is merely holding a mirror to reality. Some of his middle-and upper-class characters are honest, reliable, and generous in spirit; some of his working-class types are villains to the core. He will sometimes show diabolical cooperation between servants and masters; in The Veron Mystery (1939), a shrewd old serving woman first tries to protect her dying master, then speeds him to his grave in an effort to protect his estranged but worthy son.

Bailey’s stories and novels offer a rich variety of women. They come from all classes and backgrounds and range from stammering infants to wise ancients. There are dedicated, efficient professionals—such as Dr. Isabel Cope in The Life Sentence (1946)—candid college students, spunky teenagers, philosophical single women, and devoted wives and mothers. A single short story from 1939 presents the Honorable Victoria Pumphrey, a charming and masterful detective whom the reader unfortunately sees only in her first case. This Bailey rarity, “A Matter of Speculation,” may be found in Ellery Queen’s Anthology, issue 15, 1968. Yet without wickedness and murder there would be no detective stories, and Bailey’s women, though usually interesting, are sometimes murderous. Indeed, his female criminals are alarming in their resourcefulness and numbing in their malice and villainy. If demonstrating that the female is deadlier than the male is misogynistic, Bailey stands convicted.

The Bishop’s Crime

Children figure in many of the stories and novels, tiresomely so according to detractors. Imperiled children often contribute to the suspense and anxiety induced by Bailey’s plots; the author’s ability to represent the minds of small children is extraordinary. They are far from alike; in The Bishop’s Crime (1940), the reader first meets Bishop Rankin’s daughter Peggy Rankin, ten years old, outside after dark to steal plums. When Fortune finally wins the trust of this high-spirited girl, she contributes to the solution of the mystery.

Apart from the series heroes themselves, Bailey has one large group of characters who, taken altogether, may be too good to be true. Many of his stories have love stories as subordinate plots; in these, there are a number of young men whose devotion to their ladies is chivalric, unconditional, and selfless.

Reggie Fortune

The character of Reggie Fortune changes hardly at all through a very long series of stories and novels, though in the latter tales Fortune does remark about his advancing years and reflect on cases of earlier days. Plump, baby-faced, and blond, Fortune prefers lying down to sitting, and sitting to walking. A gourmet with a large appetite, he avoids distilled liquor altogether, but enjoys table wines. He prefers the quiet country life to the bustle of the city. Whenever possible he will sleep late and start his day with a long soak in the tub. He enjoys his pipe and cigars in moderation. He protests when called to cases but, once engaged, proves capable of rapid sprints, long hikes, and furious—everyone except Fortune would say recklessly dangerous—driving. Fortune was dropping his final g’s before Lord Peter Wimsey came on the scene, and he was dropping many parts of speech as well. His manner of speaking is usually brief, like old-fashioned telegrams, interspersed with quaint expressions such as “Oh my hat!” and “My only Aunt!”

Joan Amber, Fortune’s wife, rarely plays a large role in his adventures, but she appears often enough to have a distinct style and character. Joan is...

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