Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Missing Fair Play

Mike Grost has shown that H. C. Bailey's detective fiction exerted a decided influence over other, more well-known writers of his period and after, among them Margery Allingham, Anthony Wynne, Philip MacDonald, Elizabeth Ferrars, J. J. Connington, Gladys Mitchell, and Ruth Rendell.
He probably never anticipated that he'd found a school of detective fiction.
From the '20s through the '40s, Bailey enjoyed remarkably high critical esteem:
Unanimous critical acclaim at one time greeted Bailey's work. He was both praised and anthologized by S. S. Van Dine, Dorothy Sayers, Ellery Queen, and Howard Haycraft, a clean sweep of the great critics of the Golden Age. 'The Encyclopedia of Mystery and Detection' says that he was the most popular mystery writer in Great Britain between the wars. This means that his works were more popular than Chesterton, Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers or Carr, something that seems incomprehensible today. — Mike Grost, "H. C. Bailey", GUIDE TO CLASSIC MYSTERY AND DETECTION
Grost thinks Bailey's place in detective fiction annals is assured, but with an exception:
Where does Bailey's work fit in detective fiction history? Certainly, Bailey and company considered themselves aligned with the fair play, puzzle plot detective stories of the Golden Age. I would agree, with the caveat that the Bailey school's work often fails badly in the "fair play" department. — Mike Grost, op. cit.
Bailey and his school also tended to overplay the drama a little too much:
The most typical 1930's story of Bailey, or one of his followers, has the following paradigm. The detective is usually a medical expert, a doctor or scientist who is also a member of Britain's upper classes, who works closely with Scotland Yard, and who is highly respected by them as a genius. He is assigned a case, one that often looks superficial or simple. The detective is disturbed by some simple looking clue, and suspects that some evil conspiracy is lurking in the background. He follows up on this, often over the protests of the police that he is making things too complicated, and discovers an incredibly evil conspiracy behind the wings. The goal of this conspiracy is to injure or kill some innocent helpless person, usually either a small child, or a defenseless young woman. The motive is usually greed, such as obtaining an inheritance, combined with a very sick mentality that sees nothing wrong in the torture of the innocent.
Oftentimes the mechanism of this diabolical conspiracy is scientifically based, and the villain has a scientific or medical background, too. Detective work uncovers a hidden background to the current crime, often another crime in the past, one that forms a complex piece of mystery plot all on its own.
At the end, there is a melodramatic finale, in which the detective struggles to keep the villain from committing yet further sinister crimes. Throughout the story there is an atmosphere of evil, combined with the action of melodrama.
One can see several problems with this formula from such a description. There is often a concentration on horror elements in such a work . . .
The hidden conspiracies and complex backgrounds of the tales are often "deduced" by the detective from the slenderest and most innocuous looking clues. It often seems to me that their approach violates the convention of "fair play", that there is no way an intelligent reader or other independent observer could actually deduce these complex background plots from such slender threads. — Mike Grost, op. cit.
For more analysis, see Grost's page on "The Bailey School"; follow the links to several reviews.

- A Wikipedia article ("H. C. Bailey").

Category: Detective fiction

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