Last week, I was moved to reflect upon the end of the archetypal Golden Age detective novel, and this week I’m moved to reflect on its beginning. The essential ludic air at the heart of the best of the genre is not quite there in The Duke of York’s Steps, but one can feel the inalienable ingredients of the form straggling into line to give shape to a story that retains fidelity to a type of plot that, at this stage, was understood if not quite mastered. If anything, the mystery feels almost over-subtle — like Antidote to Venom, it seems a trifle unlikely that such a set of circumstances as these would come to warrant criminal investigation — and so approximately the first quarter is spent trying to manufacture the necessary traction for the detection to begin in earnest.
There is in that first quarter, though, enough to establish Wade as someone doing far more than simply going through the motions. Henry Lancelot Aubrey-Fletcher — to give him his full name — had served in the First World War before becoming a writer, and having his characters doff their caps to the newly-built cenotaph on Whitehall may seem like obsessive obsequiousness until one reflects:
What a wonderful sight it must be for those million dead Britons to look down — if they could look down — upon the dense black and white sea of their comrades and descendants, motionless and silent in memory of them. … Quaint in a way, when you thought of some of the million whose memory they were hallowing — scoundrels, a lot of them, cowards a good many, and the great bulk only fighting and dying because they had to.
Elsewhere, the investigation into the death of the financier Sir Garth Fratten only really starts because a Scotland Yard officer with the means to greenlight such things finds his grieving daughter attractive and wishes to please (and hopefully see more of) her. Wade has a good balance of this contrast of the general and the personal — of the essential turpitude behind a great many good acts — and is able to switch between the two with surprising ease. The result is a picture of a society held in the thrall of finance giants as much as are the young men who populate it enraptured by the starlets they clamour round stage doors during show intervals — “many of them bare-headed” — hoping for a note or a word of encouragement. No doubt, the world on Wade’s pages is populated from the ground all the way up by moments of fractious insight such as these.
Dual threads see newly-promoted Inspector John Poole and the murdered man’s daughter Inez pursuing their own ends in seeking out the truth, the former practically given an attack of the yips by the latter and allowing here a free rein he doesn’t know she’s using. It’s interesting that this ends up effectively as a police procedural: Poole does the paperwork, and Inez has the Inspector French-esque doggedness to track a clue down to its final, final ends (interestingly, one parenthetical aside reveals an admiration for French as a fictional creation). In a way, though, this brought to my mind the early work of Rupert Penny, with its capable, human policeman working away at a problem and able to construe the connections that come out of each action and interaction.
It also recalls Penny’s first three books in that — while admirably constructed along very entertaining lines — there’s no key moment of “Aha! That’s how you tricked me!” when the answers are reached. There’s a moment late on which almost falls into this category, but in truth it doesn’t change a great deal and is simply an example of expectations being led astray…a nice touch, but nothing revelatory. This is very much in ‘professional policeman’ category of GAD, which always felt to me like a more straight-laced cousin of the free-for-all puzzle of the genius amateur — Poole’s senior officer even warns against the invitation of amateur sleuths into Scotland Yard cases — and it fulfills this remit admirably.
So, as a first exposure to Henry Wade, this is a promising start; it was only his third novel, and feels slightly lacking in confidence, but the callowness of John Poole works well here as a sort of meta-examination of detective plotting: the sleuth as new to this as the author. While out of print in traditional for, a great deal — possibly all — of Wade’s books are available in ebook from The Murder Room, and although it’s taken me a long time to get to this, I’m now eager to explore further. He may not yet be master of all he assays, but there is humour and guile enough here to make this a far from onerous reading experience. I shall in due course — ahem — Wade deeper…