H.C. Bailey's reputation as a crime writer, once very high, has long been in eclipse. There are reasons for this, mostly to do with his idiosyncratic style of telling a story, which has long been out of fashion, and seems to me to be very unlikely to come back into vogue in the foreseeable future. Yet he remains an interesting and unusual writer, and Garstons, my Forgotten Book for today, which dates from 1930, is an interesting and unusual book.
The protagonist of this book - it would be too much of a stretch to describe him as a "hero" - is Joshua Clunk. He is a solicitor, but not like any other fictional (or real life) solicitor I've come across. True, he acts for some very dodgy people, and likes to get involved in sorting out mysteries, and in those respects he resembles my own Harry Devlin. But he's a strange chap, given to singing hymns and taunting the police in a rather patronising way. He's happily married, but there are hints at a dark and unscrupulous side to his character, and his secretive and provocative manner rubs people up the wrong way. Yet he gets results. A man to be reckoned with, and Bailey continued to write about him for the rest of his career after introducing him in this story.
Garstons opens with a young man whose family is known to Clunk suggesting that his father was murdered by the owners of a company called Garstons for the sake of a valuable invention. What follows is a story that meanders, quite eccentrically at times, but takes in further crimes, including murder and blackmail. Clunk takes a close interest in goings-on at the home of Lord Croyland, owner of the Garston company, and evidently a man with something to hide, before guiding the police to the solution of a long-concealed mystery.
There are some good ideas here. The concept of an anti-hero like Clunk is a good one, though the choice of his name strikes me as unfortunate, as it suggests a feeble humour that isn't really what Bailey was about. Perhaps it seemed like a good idea back in 1930, but I rather think that Bailey's problem was that he made some poor choices about how to execute the very good ideas for crime stories that he kept coming up with. Frustrating, but there are rewards in reading Bailey, provided you are willing to make plenty of allowances. For me, he is an acquired taste, but after years of reservations about his work, I have now acquired that taste - at least in small doses!