I HAVE been asked to say something about the way in which the hero of my detective stories, Mr. Fortune, came into being and what he is like.
He owes his birth to the darkest days of the war. Then it was something of a diversion to play with the invention of detective mysteries which might have a new kind of a flavour and a master detective who might be a little different. But there were a good many other things to do in those days, and the war had been over a year or two before Mr. Fortune had had enough adventures to make his bow to the public.
I don't think he was modelled on anybody; though, as happens with most of a novelist's characters, bits of him are taken from different people who have come my way. As the stories grew he took charge, he developed as I had not intended or foreseen—an independent creature. He rather introduced himself to me than was made by me.
How did he become the scientific adviser of the Criminal Investigation Department? It was like this.
Reginald Fortune was born less than fifty years ago, the only son of a doctor of moderate means in good practice in one of the suburbs of London. Reginald was sent to Charterhouse and Oxford. Neither at school nor university had he any particular distinction but a general popularity. Schoolmasters and tutors pronounced him the most ordinary of amiable youths, though one or two remarked that he had an abnormal capacity for being interested in any subject from prehistoric religion to the newest physics.
It was always understood that he should become a doctor. When he went on from Oxford to a London hospital he found that he was developing a specialized ability, first as a surgeon, then as a pathologist.
His own statement is that there were two formative influences in his young life: first the professor who had amassed a larger amount of useless knowledge than any man in Oxford, secondly Sir Lawson Hunter, whose "European reputation as a surgeon has been won by knowing his own mind."
So Reginald came back to the suburbs of his birth and took an assistant's share of his father's placid family practice.
He will always maintain that this is what he was made for: the cure or care of the common ills of life—the children's measles and the parents1 rheumatism. It is his opinion that the specialist is inevitably a rather absurd person, doomed to incomplete appreciation of the world. In pensive moments he will mourn the fate which made him one.
What compelled him to specialize was two cases of crime in his suburban practice. The speed and certainty of his apprehension, his insight and power of inference from obscure facts commended him as the ideal expert to the Chief of the Criminal Investigation Department, who, as he complains bitterly, would never let him alone afterwards. Yet Reginald cannot have been wholly unwilling. There is no doubt that the real forces which determined his career were his interest in the drama of humanity, his consciousness of power to divine human motives, and his affection for the victim, the "under-dog," in the strife of the world.
Nothing of that is suggested by his looks or his habits of life. He continues, in spite of years which must be called middle age, to look about twenty-five, a rather plump twenty-five, but of a fresh and innocent face which might be younger. An irreverent damsel christened him "Cherub," and the name has stuck. His fair hair is ample and unfaded still. His blue eyes have still a simple candour, or a wistful childlike surprise at this wonderful world. His round cheeks keep a schoolboy complexion.
He lives much at his ease. No human pleasure, from the higher poetry or the profounder speculations of science and philosophy to chocolate cream, is alien to him, except the sport which consists in killing creatures and the social ceremonies which draw crowds. He has been accused of an excessive interest in food and drink. His appetites of this kind are hearty and, apart from an absolute refusal to take any interest in port or whisky, of a catholic extent. But it is believed that, after the presence of his wife, his garden and his laboratory give him his dearest delights. And his wife has been heard to complain of the difficulties of being married to a small boy.
He is wont to say that he has an old-fashioned mind. In so far as this refers to morals it means that he holds by the standard principles of conduct and responsibility, of right and wrong, of sin and punishment.
He does not always accept the law of a case as justice, and has been known to act on his own responsibility in contriving the punishment of those who could not legally be found guilty or the immunity of those who were not legally innocent.
On the conviction of a criminal he has sometimes been heard to repeat the phrase of the old divine "There, but for the grace of God, go I." But this does not proceed from the comfortable philosophy that anybody may be a rascal if circumstances impel him that way. Mr. Fortune's creed is that the original impulse in a great deal of crime is a motive which many or most people feel. The distinction of the criminal is that he indulges it selfishly. For that selfishness when it wrongs others Mr. Fortune finds no excuse in difficult or tempting circumstances. A cruel crime is to him the work of a pestilential creature, and he sees his duty in dealing with such cases as that of a doctor in "treating" illness. The cause must be discovered and extirpated. There is no more mercy for the cruel criminal than for the germs of disease. Both must be made innocuous. The measures taken against both must be such as to diminish the danger of further infection.
He is pained at the admiration which finds anything mysterious in his success. All his investigations, he will insist, proceed by the tried and proved methods of science, exact observation, formation of a hypothesis, and the testing of it by further investigation and experiment.
Not that he has any superstitious faith in science. He takes all its present conclusions as provisional and trusts them only so far as they will do the day's work for him, with a perfect faith that they will be superseded by something more effective to-morrow. On each new theory which comes forward to supersede them he turns an impartial and critical eye. So he will smile at the newer psychologies as putting the oldest religions into a fresh and inconvenient jargon, and go his hopeful and ruthless way believing heartily in God and the devil and the power of the human mind to know which is which and give an effective hand to either. Listen to a little conversation between him and the Chief of the Criminal Investigation Department, the Hon. Sidney Lomas, on one of his last cases.
"I shouldn't like to be in your black list, Reginald," said Lomas. "Persevering and resourceful hater, aren't you?"
"My dear chap! Oh, my dear chap!" Reggie moaned. "Not me. No. A simple, gentle nature. I like seeing fair. That's all. I don't like people being hurt. That woman—she was made to be a force of evil. Like the plague flea, like the malarial mosquito. Queer world. All these cruel things, they play with us, they show as shadows that cheat us, and we can't get to what they really are and kill it till they've made a flood of misery." He gazed at Lomas with dreamy plaintive eyes. "I wonder."
"My dear fellow!" Lomas protested. "I don't know how the world's made."
"No. Devilish element in it very puzzlin'. "Why is the insect? Why is the malignant bacillus? However. We've done our job this time. About as efficient as the surgeon who saves one case and knows he don't know how to save the next."
"Are we down-hearted?" Lomas smiled. "No. My dear Reginald, you've made a brilliant thing of it. There's no occasion for this philosophic melancholy."
"I have been rather brilliant," Mr. Fortune murmured. "Yes. But it wasn't really me that did it. Decisive factor was the ultimate decency of people,"
They were walking across the park through a complacent crowd of people bustling home from their Westminster offices.
"Look at 'em," said Mr. Fortune, "all glad they're alive and lettin' live and goin' home to enjoy it. Same like me. The common people of whom I am the chief." He sighed happily. "In the simple joy of bein' decent. And so man is an advancer and the centuries evolve. Yes, that's the real force of progress, old thing! The common man's common virtues. Not the eminent expert."
Text © 1935 HC Bailey-Allen & Unwin Layout © 2004 R.D. Collins
The Great Detectives
The Great Detectives
Books Wanted Bibliographies DW Artists Home Page