Saturday, May 4, 2013

Shadow on the Wall

H. C. Bailey (1878-1961) was regarded in his lifetime as one of the giants of the detective fiction genre, a name comparable to Christie or Sayers. For some odd reason his reputation has not lasted as well as that of most of his contemporaries. Bailey created several fictional detectives, the best-known being Reginald Fortune. After producing countless Mr Fortune short stories in 1934 he finally published his first Mr Fortune novel, Shadow on the Wall.

Reginald Fortune and his friend Lomas, who happens to the chief of the Criminal Investigation Branch of Scotland Yard, have been discussing the mysterious Poyntz murder case. The case is mysterious because Mrs Poyntz does not actually seem to have been murdered. Her death appears to have been, without a shadow of a doubt, suicide. And yet both Fortune and Lomas are not entirely happy about the case.

The death, again apparently by suicide, of Mrs Poyntz’s airman husband only serves to increase their vague sense of unease.

The Poyntz case appeared to be connected with blackmail. Now some other odd occurrences involving Lady Rosnay and the theft of a diamond tiara that was not stolen at all and the curious case of two prominent up-and-coming Opposition politicians have also mystified both Reginald Fortune and Lomas. There does not appear to be any connection with the Poyntz case, and yet...

Needless to say further untoward events soon follow, involving (among other things) Lady Rosnay’s monkey and drug smuggling. And of course there will eventually be murder.

Shadow on the Wall is a fine example of the fair-play mysteries that characterised the golden age of detective fiction. There are clues in abundance, there are red herrings, there is the kind of ingenious complicated plot so beloved of devotees of this genre. And it’s all done with style and finesse.

Reginald Fortune is the type of upper-class amateur sleuth who dominated the genre at that time. That certainly does not mean he is merely a Lord Peter Wimsey imitator. Mr Fortune has quite enough personality of his own. He is a humorous and likeable character.

Bailey’s writing style is very pleasing - not overly ornate or precious but with plenty of liveliness and wit.

It’s difficult to understand why Bailey is not better known, except perhaps that he has the reputation of being better at the short story than the novel, and short stories have been out of favour with both publishers and readers for some tim now. Be that as it may, if you’re a fan of detective fiction you should certainly hasten to make acquaintance of Mr Reginald Fortune.

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