Friday, 8 April 2011

Forgotten Book - Shadow on the Wall

More than a couple of years have passed since I mentioned on this blog that a couple of interesting articles in CADS had prompted me to think about exploring further the work of Henry Christopher Bailey, one of the leading lights of Golden Age detective fiction. It says something about my other preoccupations that it has taken until now for me to get round to reading anything else by Bailey.

My choice for today's Forgotten Book Is Shadow on the Wall, a novel happily made available again thanks to a recent reprint by those excellent American publishers Rue Morgue. It was the first novel to feature Bailey's most famous detective, Reggie Fortune, although by the time it appeared Bailey had produced a large number of Reggie Fortune short stories which had earned a good deal of popular acclaim as well as critical approval. I've read a few of the short stories, years ago, but never before have I broached a full-length novel by H.C. Bailey.

This particular novel – admired by Bailey's fans – shows both his strengths and his weaknesses as a crime writer. Strengths first. He constructs a clever plot – this one starts off as a kind of upper-class country house mystery, but develops into a very dark story indeed. Bailey writes, at times, with both power and passion, characteristics not often associated with Golden Age mysteries. This story has some quite memorable features.

The snag is that Bailey's style is both mannered and horribly dated. At times story is quite hard going, and by all accounts some of his later books were even more self-indulgent. Reggie moans and mumbles so much that an interesting character becomes irritating. All this is a pity, because Bailey was an intelligent writer, and cut above many of his contemporaries. But the laboured and old-fashioned prose is a real stumbling block. Even so, those who are willing to persevere with this novel will be glad that they did.


vegetableduck said...

Martin, generally I find Reggie, much, much, much (do I need to emphasize the muchness?) easier to take in the short stories than in the novels. I think as a short story writer he really is a significant figure from the period. Even there, however, the moaning and mumbling can get a bit irritating.

Shadow on the Wall rather reminded me of an Allingham, though I didn't find it nearly as engaging as the best Allingham.

Steve Lewis said...

Bailey was one of the better known writers back in the Golden Age of Detection, but as you say, Martin, he's awfully tough for present day readers to get into.

I'd have thought that he'd among the less likely of possible candidates to be reprinted today, so I'm kind of surprised to learn that Rue Morgue has proven me wrong.

Surprised but still somehow pleased.

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks, both. I must give the short stories another go.