Books Guest blog goal: to bring something obscure to a wider audience. Well, 2014 marked the end of a quest of mine, a quest to find all that could be known about a character called Reginald Fortune. Obscure? Well, I’m obviously not going to be the only person in the world to have heard of him. But back in the early 1980s it felt like I was...
When I was about 11 or 12 I was exploring my Nan’s house when I came across an old, very tatty cloth-bound book called Clue for Mr Fortune by H C Bailey. The (foxed) imprint page told me it was the third impression ‘(first cheap edition)’ and that it had been published in September 1937. No one knew where it had come from or who owned it, so I was allowed to take it home to read. Clue for Mr Fortune contained six stories, each dealing with a different ‘clue’ that spoke volumes to the eponymous Reginald Fortune, a gp who advised Scotland Yard. The book’s language was occasionally archaic in both construction and word use (the first story has a girl who steals a flapjack, which turned out to be a powder compact and not, as I confusingly thought at the time, an oaty treat), the cherubic Reggie was not the most sympathetic of lead characters and the action was often gruesome (the flapjack story not only had dead humans – perfectly acceptable in detective stories – but also a cat with its head bashed in, which was fairly traumatic). Nevertheless, I adored the book and wanted to read more.
I turned first to my library, but the Essex Library Network had only one H C Bailey volume – and that was in its reserve collection, not even on the shelves – a reprint of the first book, Call Mr Fortune. As far as I could tell with my limited resources (no internet!), only two books had ever been reprinted, the rest had been out of print for decades and the chances of any library having a 50 or 60 year old edition on their shelves seemed slim. So for the next few decades I scoured second-hand bookshops, flicked through every mystery anthology I could find hoping to see the magical words ‘by H C Bailey’ in the contents list, and even regularly picked up ‘Book and Magazine Collector’ to search through its classifieds (growing to loathe Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Mr Fortune’s Maggot along the way). Slowly, gradually, my collection built up. There were additional delights in discovering these often ancient books: for example my 1943 US Pocket Book edition of The Best of Mr Fortune Stories asks the owner to send it to ‘Commanding General, Fourth Corps Area Headquarters, Atlanta GA’ when they’ve read it, ‘to help the boys in the service’ who need books ‘for amusement and recreation’. Lovely stuff!
Mr Fortune is one of the detectives emulated by Tommy and Tuppence in Agatha Christie’s Partners in Crime and H C Bailey is one of the authors mentioned in another of her books, The Body in the Library, presumably therefore both Fortune and Bailey would have been familiar names to readers of the 1920s-40s. So why have they both fallen into obscurity now? Perhaps it’s because authors such as Christie can transcend their time period, but Bailey is very much of his. In these cosmopolitan days there would be little place for some of Reggie’s deductions – there’s the time he solved a case by discovering that the stomach contents of a murdered victim contain saffron and deducing he must find a Devonshire household as only they would know of saffron cake, and a similar experience when he deduces a fragment of a menu must be from Brittany so searches for a crime there.
Then there’s his relationship with the police which is patronising in the extreme: he frequently bursts the smug bubble of some local police official by pointing out that, eg, an absence of blood on the ground means the corpse was murdered elsewhere, while his acolytes (Mr Lomas, the Chief of the CID, and Superintendent Bell) look upon him with awe (OK, so there was no CSI in the early 20th century, but really...) And then he’ll go in the opposite direction with deductions so out of left field that you have to credit him with second sight – even his colleagues think his powers verge on the supernatural. (“‘Very odd how he knows men,’ said Superintendent Bell reverently. ‘As if he had an extra sense to tell him of people’s souls, like smells or colours.’ And he has a clear head. He is never confused about what is important and what isn’t, and he has never been known to hesitate in doing what is necessary.”)
That’s a quote from ‘The Unknown Murderer’, a story from Mr Fortune’s Practice that showcases several of the features that distinguish the Mr Fortune stories: an unusual and disturbing motive (in this case, murdering people who are greatly loved to inflict suffering on those left behind), and Reggie’s own sense of justice – ‘doing what is necessary’ as the text has it – another thing that might make him unpalatable today. Here, his struggles with the murderer lead to her death, which he then denies knowledge of and classes as suicide during his own examination of the body as Home Office expert. Slightly dodgy? Oh yes. But at least in that case the criminal was trying to kill him at the time; in a really quite startlingly large percentage of stories Mr Fortune either causes or fails to prevent the death of the criminal, often cold-bloodedly – and even considering the death penalty of the time, this can make uncomfortable reading. It may make it more or less acceptable that these deaths often occur when Reggie knows that there’s insufficient evidence for a conviction or when the punishment would be, in his eyes, inadequate – he’s carrying out the death penalty that he feels they deserve. (“‘They’d tortured that boy and his mother. They planned to murder mother and son. They did their best to murder the boy’s soul. And the law would only have given them a few years in prison. I want justice.’ Bell looked at him with dread. ‘It’s an awful responsibility to take.’ ‘Yes. I take it,’ Reggie Fortune said.” – ‘The Only Son’, Mr Fortune’s Trials.)
Children feature frequently – Mr Fortune is a champion of children and places their welfare above all things, but what happens to them before his arrival is frequently extremely distressing, and there are many that he arrives too late to save and can only avenge. But putting aside the terrible things that happen to these children in the name of fiction, possibly the worst crime that is committed in these stories is the way that the youngest of the children speak: so vewwy vewwy twee. Weally they do. It’s the only folly in the prose that really needs the reader’s forgiveness.
Mr Fortune is the opposite to contemporaries such as Poirot and Inspector French in that he works better in short stories than in novels – even with my love of the character I find the novels can verge on impenetrable at times, but there are compensations: Mr Fortune Finds a Pig provides one of the best book names ever created, drily literal and absurd at the same time, although the plot of the 1943 book is grim – pig -> blood of a sucking pig used to culture typhus -> typhus used to murder evacuee children -> murder of evacuee children used to create unrest. Then there’s Dead Man’s Effects, the cover of which provides the unforgettable illustration of some people dramatically looking down at a very small set of false teeth (‘dead man’s effects’ being WWII slang for false teeth). Glorious!
As of 2014 my 30-odd year quest has ended: thanks to the Internet I have finally tracked down all the volumes of short stories. No more new Mr Fortune for me (although there are still those cases never recorded except as a brief recap at the start of a story: “‘That was chocolate cream,’ he said placidly. ‘You’d better arrest the aunt’” or “Mr Fortune came back from the Zoo pensive. He had been called to the inquest on Zuleika the lemur – a strange, sad case”, which can at least be discovered by an exercise of the imagination). So where do I go from here?
Mr Fortune is a great character. He’s lucky that in these Internet days he’s become slightly less obscure, there’ve even been reprints of a couple of his books in recent years – but they still need to be sought out, which requires people to know about them in the first place; that’s the challenge. How many other great characters have been lost to all but a few who frequent second-hand bookshops? How many now exist only in the few stories that have been anthologised? So I’m going to keep my eyes open for some other tatty, foxed, century-old volume that’s never been reprinted – and maybe find another character who doesn’t deserve to have been thrown on history’s scrap heap. Why not join me? Rescue a lost character today!
A few story picks:
‘The Furnished Cottage’ (Mr Fortune’s Trials): a twisted tale of revenge. “Perhaps the water wasn’t really poisoned. He put the tip of a finger into it and touched his tongue. Bitter! Yes, the old woman told the truth. Strychnine, and a good dose of it. And he would be sitting there, wild with thirst, looking at her poisoned water. . . . The old woman must have thought a good deal about making him suffer.”
‘The Dead Leaves’ (Clue for Mr Fortune): picturesque murder in the Lake District. “’He didn’t get it on that rock. It wouldn't grow there. He’d been higher. On the mountain.’ Bell watched him gaze up at it with a queer wistful look. His round face had the expression of a child wanting the cruel, difficult world to be kind.”
‘The Little House’ (Mr Fortune, Please): a drawing of a kitten leads Mr Fortune to a tortured child. “’They’ve been making experiments. Not for science. For the devil.’”
‘The Profiteers’ (Mr Fortune’s Trials): Reggie’s only supernatural case. “‘When they broke the door in they found him over there in the corner. Sort of kneeling in a heap, they say. As if he died saying his prayers.’”
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