Thursday, March 16, 2017

Shadow on the Wall, by H.C. Bailey

Lady Rosnay has insisted that Reginald Fortune attend her fancy dress ball, but the merriment is disrupted when the old lady takes a tumble down the stairs and loses her diamond tiara. She is strangely unruffled by the incident, which intrigues Reggie, who is almost certain she was pushed. But the mischief is just getting under way. Two murders follow, and Reggie, along with his friend Lomas, head of Scotland Yard's C.I.D., begin investigating in earnest. Their suspects include Simon Osmond, a rising young politician whose plans to marry Lady Rosnay's niece, Alix Lynn, have been vetoed by the imperious old lady, as well as the headstrong Alix herself. (Back cover blurb from Rue Morgue Press edition.)
[Alix is actually Lady Rosnay's granddaughter, not that it matters to the plot.]
This is the first of two Reggie Fortune novels that have been reissued by Rue Morgue Press. Originally published in 1934, it was also the first full-length Fortune novel that H.C. Bailey wrote, after several books of short stories. The Rue Morgue edition includes a brief biographical sketch of H.C. Bailey, from which I learned that he wrote thirty historical and adventure novels, as well as at least twenty-five mysteries - most while working full-time as a journalist!

I have seen Bailey's mysteries described as "fair-play" stories, along with Dorothy L. Sayers' and Agatha Christie's. I'm guessing that means the authors don't withhold evidence from the readers, or suddenly introduce suspects at the last minute, though Sayers and Christie at least weren't above misdirecting their readers. And I remember a point in Sayers' Nine Red Herrings where something is missing from a crime scene, and the author tells her readers that of course we know what it was missing and why it was important (not being a painter, I of course had no idea). Reggie Fortune certainly stresses the importance of collecting all the evidence and seeing it clearly - and of not reasoning ahead of the evidence, or jumping to conclusions. As his author says of him, "His own successes he attributes to the simple method of believing evidence, which he sees very rarely practiced by clever creatures." The Golden Age authors don't stint on the evidence their detectives turn up, though. Part of the puzzle is sorting out what's important, and also understanding the conclusions that the police or the detective draws from it.

The back cover blurb is a little misleading. What sets the case in motion is actually the suicide of a young mother, and a nasty anonymous letter sent to her daughter at boarding school. It's really the letter that catches Reggie's attention. He is always concerned for the children that are involved or get caught up in his cases, and in the stories that I've read, threats to children bring out an avenging side to him. Lady Rosnay makes a point of speaking to  him about the suicide, before inviting him to her ball - which certainly comes to a smashing close! The story that follows is rather complicated, and I wasn't always sure where it was going - but then neither was Reggie. What he is sure of in the end is "the fundamental decency of people...That's why I'm not melancholy. Look at 'em. Something ultimately decent in 'em, however far they'd gone wrong. That's the force that broke the [villains]." There's something appealing in a hero who recognizes and values that.

The authors of the biographical sketch write that "Reggie Fortune was, for the most part, more successful with readers when taken in short doses," as in H.C. Bailey's many short stories. I'm not sure I agree. I have two more of the Fortune novels on the TBR shelves, so I'll see. But I don't think I'll be collecting the complete works - and not just because so many are out of print. Eleven of his mystery novels have a different detective, Joshua Clunk: "a coarse, hymn-quoting attorney who is not above employing extralegal means to clear his own client and suss out the real murderer." Mr. Clunk made a cameo in this book, representing one of the suspects, but I didn't realize he was a regular character until I read the introduction.

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Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!