Call Mr. Fortune by H.C. Bailey

As I’ve mentioned before, whenever we have a reading club week I always check out what Golden Age crime is available to read; it’s a genre I’ve always loved, and I’m finding it the perfect kind of escapism for our current troubled times. And 1920 was obviously a good year for great detectives making their debut; on Monday I covered Hercule Poirot’s first case, “The Mysterious Affair at Styles”; and today I want to talk about another sleuth making his first appearance, though one whose popularity has not endured as well as Christie’s – Dr. Reginald Fortune, created by H.C. Bailey.

I’ve waxed lyrical about Reggie before on the Ramblings ad nauseum, but I love his stories. A medical doctor, he’s drawn into crime investigation whilst minding his father’s practice; and he most definitely has a talent for sleuthing! This first collection sees a fledgling Reggie investigating a series of twisty cases, and from the start he has his regular sidekicks, Bell and Lomas, on hand. There are six stories in the collection:

The Archduke’s Tea
The Sleeping Companion
The Nice Girl
The Efficient Assassin
The Hottentot Venus
The Business Minister

Each is an entertaining and clever mystery, though it has to be said that Reggie as a character is still developing; Martin Edwards, editor of the British Library Crime Classics series often includes Reggie stories in his anthologies, and describes Bailey’s style as mannered. There’s certainly an element of Wimsey-esque silly-ass-ness, but already hints of the darker elements to come. Reggie may talks like an idiot at times, but he certainly isn’t one…

Some are born great, some achieve greatness, some have greatness thrust upon them. That was Dr. Reginald Fortune’s trouble. He had become a specialist, and, as he told anybody who would listen, thought it an absurd thing to be. For he was interested in everything, but not in anything in particular. And it was just this various versatility of mind and taste which had condemned him to be a specialist. Obviously an absurd world.

On to the individual stories. “The Archduke’s Tea” is an entertaining tale about murder, nobles in exile and married love; here, Reggie’s sympathies are established early on as always being on the side of the victim. The second story “The Sleeping Companion” is ingenious, dealing as it does with a murder which seems sinister and clear-cut, but isn’t. In “The Nice Girl“, Reggie investigates on behalf of a nice nurse of his acquaintance whose paramour is accused of murder; but all is not as it seems.

“I’m not an advocate, Lomas. I’m always on the same side. I’m for justice. I’m for the man who’s been wronged.”

The Efficient Assassin” gives us a tantalising glimpse of Reggie’s college past as he investigates the murder of the estranged father of an old school friend. “The Hottentot Venus” is perhaps the weakest entry in the collection, dealing as it does with a disappearing school girl and some unlikely action aboard a yacht.

The last story in the collection (and possibly the longest – I’ll get on to why that’s hard to judge later…) is “The Business Minister“, and I felt it was definitely the best. In a snowy spring, Reggie investigates a damaging political leak and the murder of an unidentified man. Are the two connected? However could the leak have happened? And is everyone in the story exactly what the appear to be? It’s twisty and absorbing, reaching into the past, and also, incidentally, introducing the woman who will become Mrs. Fortune.

It was a clear cold morning of early spring, and Reggie shrank under his rugs. He had no love for east winds. He thought that there should be a close time for murders. He was elaborating a scheme by which the murder and the cricket seasons should be conterminous, when, at about twenty-five miles from London, they passed a horrible building. It was some distance from the high road, perched on the top of a small hill. It was of very red brick and very white stone, so arranged as to suggest the streaky bacon which might be made of a pig who had died in convulsions. It was ornate with the most improbable decorations, colonnades, battlements, a spire or so, oriel windows, a dome, Tudor chimneys, and some wedding-cake furbelows. Reggie writhed and called to his factotum, who was sitting beside the chauffeur. “Sam, who had that nightmare?” “That must be Colney Towers, sir. Mr. Victor Lunt’s place.”

Needless to say, it was a real joy reading these early Reggie Fortune stories and fascinating to see his first appearances, as the stories in the BLCC anthologies have tended to be later ones. The tales have aged remarkable well, although unfortunately in a couple of places there was the use of racial terminology which is of course unacceptable and a great shame. This might have something to do with the fact that it seems almost impossible to get hold of Bailey’s books…

H.C. Bailey – George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress) [Public domain via Wikimedia Commons]

Because uncharacteristically for me, I had to resort to reading this as an ebook, a format I really don’t like (and which is why I find it hard to judge the length of stories in relation to each other). I had a quick look at Bailey’s Wikipedia page while I was writing this post and was astonished to see how prolific he was. Not only did he write a mass of crime stories (including many Reggies as well as other sleuths), but he also produced historical/romance fiction and masses of journalism – impressive!

I’ve had this ebook lurking for quite some time now, but I hate the format so much I hadn’t actually read it despite it being Reggie. As far as I’m aware, the only stories currently in print are the ones in the BLCC collections, so it seems if I want to read any more of the adventures of the wonderful Reggie Fortune I shall have to reconcile myself to e-reading. Time to go searching online to see what’s available from Mr. Bailey and Mr. Fortune! 😀