I've been looking for a copy of H.C. Bailey's No Murder (1942) for a long time. My interest in this book dates back to the time when I read a letter in that great magazine CADS, in which John Jeffries claimed that it's the best detective novel ever written. The quest was given further impetus nine years ago, when Barry Pike, a very good judge, discussed the novel in CADS, and concluded that, if not superior to the greatest Golden Age books, this outing for Reggie Fortune was right up there alongside And Then There Were None, etc.
Barry's short but incisive essay pointed out that the book "is densely packed, with many strands to the narrative, including three violent deaths and three attempts to murder which Bailey handles "with great panache, leading the reader steadily up the garden. He demonstrates continually...the ability to tell one story while appearing to tell another". I agree that's a very significant gift for any detective novelist, and I also agree with him that Agatha Christie was the supreme exponent of this technique.
Barry adds: ""The particular cleverness of No Murder lies in its continuous misdirection, maintained with great skill to the end." The book's American title was The Apprehensive Dog, and as Barry rightly says, "the significance of the dog's activities emerges only in the last few lines of the text." The snag is that this is a rare book, much harder to find than all the other classics to which Barry compares it. So why is it that such a gem has been hidden from view for so long?
Now that I've read No Murder, I think I can guess the answer. The fact that it appeared during the war probably didn't help, but really the density which Barry mentions is reflected in the prose style, and this means that it's nothing like as smooth and slick as the best of Christie. Characters tend not to see things, for instance, they "descry" them. What is more, although the story is intricate and unusual, I didn't find it exciting. This is despite the fact that Bailey was, at his best, a genuinely powerful writer. But his techniques work best in short stories. One of the problems here is that the finger of suspicion points at too few people, and this frustrated me. There's also something anti-climactic about the story, a problem reflected by the title. That said, I was intrigued by the book and I'm glad I've read it. It's certainly original, and I do prize originality. But do I regard it as a masterpiece? I'm afraid not.